Australian dominance

Updated: 2014-01-26 07:20

By Sun Xiaochen(China Daily)

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Victory expected to add oomph to China's interest in tennis. Sun Xiaochen reports.

Li Na's long-anticipated second Grand Slam victory at the Australian Open on Saturday has cemented her place at the pinnacle of women's tennis and should trigger another boost for the sport in China. When 18-time Grand Slam champion Chris Evert handed the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup to Li after she defeated Slovakia's Dominika Cibulkova 7-6 (3), 6-0 to claim the Open title on her third attempt in four years, the capacity crowd at Melbourne's Rod Laver Arena stood and cheered.

The applause was not just for Li becoming, at 31, the oldest winner of the Open. Tennis fans and pundits were also full of praise for her role-model appeal that should drive the game's popularity to a whole new level in China.

"It marks a new breakthrough and a new history for Chinese tennis earns honor for her country and provides a perfect Lunar New Year present for all sports fans," a congratulatory statement released by China's General Administration of Sports said.

"Li Na winning the AO" quickly became the hottest topic on Sina Weibo, China's largest micro blog platform, with almost 3 million fans tweeting on the topic - four times more than "how to spend my Spring Festival holidays".

The number of followers on Li's personal Weibo account roared to more than 22.4 million following her second major victory. Meanwhile, her career prize money reached $15 million with the $2.3 million purse for winning in Melbourne.

Li, who lost in the final to world No 2 Victoria Ararenka last year, said she could finally make up to her husband, Jiang Shan, for that loss.

"Finally, I could have it under my name and it made up for the regret that I couldn't win the trophy as an anniversary gift to my husband last year," said Li, who married Jiang on Jan 27, 2007.

Having realized both goals of cracking the world top 3 and winning another major that she set at the beginning of 2013, Li is already looking ahead.

When asked at the post-match media conference if it was realistic to envision winning all four Grand Slam titles in her career, Li replied: "Of course, if I want to win another one or two, I have to work harder and even tougher than before - otherwise, no chance."

Since winning the 2011 French Open, which drew a TV audience of 116 million viewers in China, Li has been the face of women's tennis in the Asia-Pacific region.

Inspired by her success, tennis fever has hit China, where 10 Women's Tennis Association tournaments, including one in Li's home city, Wuhan, will be held in 2014 while 60 percent of the organization's 70 million active followers on social media are from China.

"We are already seeing the great benefits of Li's outstanding successes and this latest triumph will further add to the great momentum for women's tennis in China," Peter Johnston, WTA Asia-Pacific managing director, told China Daily.

"Li's success had led to new interest from new cities and promoters who see what great tennis events could bring to their communities and help them showcase their cities as part of a global tour."

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Following Li's footsteps, young players have set their sights on the professional tour and managing their careers as freely as she has.

After the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the Chinese Tennis Association allowed its top four female players, including Li, to manage their own careers with personal crews outside the State-run system in which players train together and turn over a portion of their prize money.

Li's second Grand Slam title is likely to bring about more "freelancing" into the professional ranks and Sun Jinfang, chief of the CTA, recently said more liberties would be available to lower-ranking youngsters.

"Her move to break from the State system was a bold one at the time, but it has become the norm now in Chinese tennis," said Mark Dreyer, a former AP and ESPN reporter. "That will only inspire more players to do the same once they have reached a certain level."

According to CTA statistics, the number of people who regularly play tennis has reached 8 million and more than 10 professional tennis academies have started operating outside the State-run system.

Li's impact, coupled with her personality, has also boosted business Down Under.

According to Tennis Australia, ticket sales from Chinese tour operators increased by 82 percent in 2013 from 2012's total of 2,592, and the tournament's merchandizing arm has reached out to 8,000 outlets in China. Chinese visitors also contributed heavily to the $239 million spent in Victoria on tourism and related activities.

"Li Na's personality shines through every time she takes to the court. She is also open and honest in all of her media dealings and interviews, which fans really appreciate. She truly transcends the sport and appeals to fans across the world," said Daniel Metcalfe, Tennis Australia's Asia-Pacific manager.

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Li Na poses with the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup after defeating Dominika Cibulkova of Slovakia in their women's singles final match at the Australian Open in Melbourne on Saturday. Bobby Yip / Reuters

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China's Li Na smashes a forehand return to Dominika Cibulkova of Slovakia en route to the singles championship at the Australian Open in Melbourne on Saturday. Rick Rycroft / Associated Press

(China Daily 01/26/2014 page1)