THE CHAMP: Li Na celebrates winning the French Open semifinal in Paris on June 2 (XINHUA)
Road to success
Li was born on February 26, 1982, in the city of Wuhan, capital of central China's Hubei Province. Her father had been a badminton player for the provincial team but died when Li was 14.
At the age of 9, Li switched from playing badminton to tennis and made the national team in 1997, becoming a professional tennis player two years later. In 2000, she partnered with Li Ting to win the Women's Tennis Association (WTA) Tashkent Open women's doubles title, becoming the first tennis tournament champions from China.
She quit the WTA tour between 2002 and 2004 because of doubts about her own progress. During that time, she completed a bachelor's degree in journalism at Huazhong University of Science and Technology in Wuhan.
Gaining more confidence and knowledge, Li returned to the national team in 2004. She married Jiang Shan, also her coach and training partner, in 2006. Jiang coached her before Danish coach Michael Mortensen joined her team in May this year.
After winning the French Open title, Li expressed her gratitude to her husband, saying, "Although he is not my coach any more, I want to give many thanks to him. He always understands me and tolerates me ... Thanks for accompanying me all the time."
Noted for her quick reflexes and fast ground strokes, Li has also won two WTA doubles titles and 16 further International Tennis Federation doubles events, entering the Wimbledon singles quarterfinals in 2006 and reaching the semifinals of the 2008 Olympic singles tournament in Beijing.
Beneficiary of reform
Apart from the history Li made on the court, the triumph she earned in Paris shows another way for Chinese athletes to achieve at top levels, in addition to the national sports system.
In December of 2008, along with three other women players, Li left the national team to take part in an experimental program for tennis players widely known as "Fly Alone."
The deal, signed by the three players with the Tennis Management Center of the General Administration of Sport of China, allowed Li and the others to choose their own coaches and set their own competition schedules.
"We took a lot of risks with this. When we initiated the program, we didn't know if they would succeed," said Sun Jinfang, Director of the center, who devoted herself to developing professionalism in tennis in a country where table tennis and badminton are still the major attractions.
"For the sport of tennis, the teenage period should take place in the national system, because China is still a developing country and tennis coaching requires a lot of money. No professional athletes could come out alone without the national system's backup," Sun said. "Of course, when athletes come to crossroads, we let them play individually on the world stage, promoting the sport in China."
Li agrees on Fly Alone program's achievement. "Without the program, possibly we wouldn't have achieved this success," she said.
During the two years after Sun's appointment in 2003, Chinese players benefited greatly from frequent participation in overseas tournaments and professional competitions. During this period China invested 6 million yuan ($926,000) in sending its women tennis players to compete abroad. Spending in developing men's tennis took the total to more than $1.2 million.
The investment paid off in 2004 when Li Ting and Sun Tiantian won gold in the women's doubles at the Sydney Olympics. At that time, Li Na, Li Ting, Sun Tiantian, Peng Shuai and several other outstanding Chinese women tennis players received a new nickname: the "Golden Flowers."
After Yao Ming's NBA-mania and the hysteria engendered by hurdler Liu Xiang, the Athens Olympics men's 110-meter hurdle champion and former world record holder, it is believed Li will bring tennis fever in China.
Xinhua News Agency reported the final between Li and Schiavone was watched by 116 million people in China.
Surely it will spark new interest in tennis among the Chinese, said WTA chairwoman and CEO Stacy Allaster. "Her victory will inspire an entire generation of young girls to play tennis."
But China only has a handful of women tennis players and they have been plagued by injuries and shortage of funding. So the real blossoming of tennis in China is still a long way off.