Updated: 2012-08-22 16:29
Being the first Asian to win the singles title of a Grand Slam tournament, it was Li Na who opened the door to tennis in China and even Asia. Her victory in the French Open was like a fairy tale and she has since been described as a “pioneer” national sports hero on a par with Yao Ming and Liu Xiang.
There is no doubt that Li's historic win, and the media coverage in China, have created a tennis craze throughout the country.
In a nation where tennis has been a relatively unpopular sport compared to badminton and table tennis, nothing short of a Grand Slam champion can boost the process of tennis popularization.
Actually, Chinese had tennis success before Li Na. Li Ting and Sun Tiantian had won a gold medal in the women’s tennis doubles at Athens 2004 Olympics, followed by Zheng Jie and Yan Zi wining the women’s doubles title at Wimbledon in 2006.
The two big wins worked like a prelude to warm up the tennis market in China, paving the way for a blowout following Li Na’s success in the French Open, which represents the highest honor in tennis circles.
On June 4, 2011, watched by more than 100 million fans on TV back in China, Li hammered the defending champion 6-4, 7-6 (0), bringing China and also Asia its first Grand Slam title.
A record-breaking 116 million viewers in China witnessed the match, which was broadcast live on China Central Television (CCTV).
“The viewership numbers for Li Na's historic Roland Garros win are a fantastic sign of the continued growth potential of women's tennis in China," WTA chief Stacey Allaster said in a news release.
The historic victory resulted in a surge of interest in tennis among children.
"Parents say that their children are now really interested in tennis and they want them to play," said Fan Wentao, a tennis coach in Jiujiang, Jiangxi province. "It's unbelievable."
"Most of the parents who called said their children had never seen a tennis match until the French Open final was shown on national TV," Fan said. The champion's prize money of 1.2 million euros ($1.7 million or 11.37 million yuan) also surprised many of them, he said.
Song Nanxi, who is 13 and one of Fan's students, said Li's triumph made her extremely proud. Song and her partner won the Jiangxi junior doubles title last year.
"My classmates knew little about tennis and didn't think it was as cool as basketball," she said. "They always talk about (NBA player) Yao Ming, but no one knew about my idol, Maria Sharapova (Russian tennis player), or was impressed by my titles.
"Now they are not only proud of Li, who is my new role model, but some even ask me to teach them how to hit the ball like her, which made me very popular.”
There were only 5 million regular tennis players in China in 2005, but the number soared to 30 million in 2011.
The WTA even predicted that Li’s victory will boost the Chinese tennis population to 300 million.
Besides the remarkable performance on court, Li’s straight-shooting personality also won the adoration of young Chinese and foreign fans.
She was once known as a maverick because of her outspoken ways and frequent bust-ups with the Chinese Tennis Association, but she has effectively broken the stereotype of the strong but silent Chinese athlete, emphasizing a phenomenon she did not start but probably best represents.
She has tattoos on her chest and lower back that boldly declare her affection for her husband. She dyes her hair different shades and she's not afraid to speak out - like when she directed a furious "Shut up!" at the crowd when they became too noisy in between points at the Beijing Olympics tournament.
But it was during her court performance at the Australian Open this year that she charmed the world with her humor and her wit. While fielding questions after her matches, she showed off her unflappable sportsmanship when she joked about her husband on court, in English.
"I will always admire her tennis first. But it was her charming personality that made us want to sign her," says Max Eisenbud, vice president of sports marketing giant International Management Group (IMG). The company sealed the deal with Li Na in 2009.
Li, dubbed "International Li" by fans, is seen as the paragon of a new, improved breed of Chinese athlete who is not afraid to let their personalities shine through.
They are more able to express themselves, and add a human face to their achievements and performances.