Tennis-Li and Zheng, China's chalk and cheese vanguard

Updated: 2010-02-01 14:42
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Li Na and Zheng Jie, who have scaled new heights for their country by both reaching the semi-finals of the Australian Open, present two very different versions of the modern Chinese sportswoman.

Li is the temperamental outsider, the rose tattooed on her chest a sign of the rebelliousness that has led to numerous clashes with Chinese officialdom and media, and to her walking away from tennis altogether for a couple of years.

Big and strong with a fierce forehand, the 27-year-old has all the attributes required to succeed in the power-dominated modern game but has often lacked the mental strength to fulfill that potential.

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Zheng is the darling of the Chinese media, a Communist Party member who was prepared to subsume her singles ambitions into the attempt to retain the women's doubles title at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

The diminutive 26-year-old hustles and harries around the court with a never-say-die attitude and has worked assiduously on improving her strength and serve to make the most of her talents.

Despite their differences, though, since China's first breakthrough in women's tennis at the 2004 Athens Olympics, when Sun Tiantian and Li Ting won a shock gold, Li and Zheng have alternated in setting new standards for their country.

Having been persuaded to return to the game in 2004 after two years at university, Li was the first Chinese player to win an event on the WTA circuit, the first ranked in the top 20 and the first to reach a grand slam quarter-finals at Wimbledon in 2006.

Zheng won China's first grand slam title with Yan in the women's doubles at the 2006 Australian Open and was the first to reach a singles semi-final at a grand slam with her fairytale run as a wildcard at the 2008 Wimbledon championships.


At the Beijing Olympics, Zheng and Yan fell short of the retaining the doubles title but were still cheered to the rafters, Zheng invoking the "Sichuan spirit" after the shattering earthquake that smashed her home province earlier that year.

Li, who was China's best hope for a gold medal in the singles but had been repeatedly chided for her "weak mentality" by Chinese officials in the run-up to the Games, lost in the semi-finals after barking "shut up" at her noisy compatriots.

Should Li complete the herculean task of beating both Williams sisters on successive days in her semi-final against Serena on Thursday, however, no one would seriously be able to question her big-match nerve again.

Even if she does not, she will still hit another new high for a Chinese player with her first foray into the world's top 10.

Zheng comes face-to-face with her idol in Belgium's seven-times grand slam winner Justine Henin, who is looking impressive on her return from retirement.

The form book would suggest that the chances of even one Chinese finalist at Melbourne Park are slim but there is good news for both on the financial front.

Once 65 percent of their prize money went to the sports system but having been freed to manage themselves last year, they now get to keep almost all of it.

And the $400,000 a losing semi-finalist at Melbourne Park pockets will go a long way in a country where the annual per capita income in rural areas is 5,153 yuan ($754.9).