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China's Li set for historic Slam final

sports Updated: Jan 29, 2011 11:56 IST

Li Na will aim to become China's first ever Grand Slam winner when she takes on Belgium's Kim Clijsters in the Australian Open final on Saturday, a result that could ignite the sport in her country.

Li, 28, has already made history by becoming the first player from China to reach a major singles final, which made her an overnight superstar on a par with idolised basketball player Yao Ming and hurdler Liu Xiang.

China's state-run media were awash with pictures and praise for the star, promising huge audience numbers in the giant nation of 1.3 billion when play starts at 7:30 pm Melbourne time (0830 GMT).

Li will also be Asia's first winner of a Grand Slam tournament -- the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon or US Open -- if she can overcome Clijsters, who has a higher ranking and three major titles already.

Despite a chequered history with state sports authorities, Chinese Tennis Association head Sun Jinfang hailed Li as a "pioneer" who had already secured her position as one of the country's all-time sporting greats.

"There is always a pioneer pushing things forward in his or her time and Li is a sporting pioneer of her time," Sun told the China Daily.

"I think she has an international standing similar to Yao Ming or Liu Xiang. She has been undervalued a little bit due to the relatively low profile of tennis in China."

Li, whose tales of her husband's snoring and her shopping sprees have delighted fans in Australia, also reached last year's Australian Open semi-final before being beaten by eventual winner Serena Williams.

That performance made her China's first top-10 player, after also becoming the first Chinese winner of a Women's Tennis Association (WTA) tournament when she won in Guangzhou in 2004.

She beat Clijsters, 27, this month for her fourth WTA title at the Sydney International, giving her fans hope that she can spring another upset on the world number three, who is also seeking her first Australian Open win.

The unconventional Li, who eschewed Chinese tradition to have a red rose and heart tattooed on her chest, was forced to convert from badminton to tennis at the age of nine.

She gave up tennis for two years to study journalism before returning in 2004, and caused a stir by insisting on being coached by her husband, Jiang Shan, rather than a trainer provided by the state.

Li is currently the world number 11 but is due to return to the top 10 when the new rankings are announced on Monday, due to her strong performance in Melbourne.