Tennis: Li hopes for Russian-style boom in China

MELBOURNE, Jan 27, 2011 (AFP) - Li Na, who made history Thursday when she became the first Asian to make a Grand Slam final, says she hopes her success at the Australian Open will inspire a Russian-style tennis boom in China.

Li Na plays a stroke during her match against Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark on January 27, 2011. Li Na won 3-6. 7-5. 6-3. AFP

Li saved a match point in the second set and showed enormous resilience to overcome top seed and world number one Caroline Wozniacki 3-6, 7-5, 3-6 and set up a final showdown against Belgian Kim Clijsters on Saturday.

The Chinese number one will rise to a career-high seven in the world as a result of making the final, and if she beats Clijsters to win her maiden Grand Slam title she will climb to number five.

Her success in Melbourne continues a run of firsts for the popular Li, who has charmed fans all week with the warmth and humour of her on-court interviews.

She was the first Chinese player to reach the top 10, the first to win a WTA title (Guangzhou 2004), the first to make a Grand Slam quarter-final (Wimbledon 2006) and, at Estoril in 2006, she and Zheng Jie played the first all-Chinese WTA final.

But she says because tennis in China doesn't have a long history, these firsts aren't important.

"It's just starting," she said. "I hope after three to five years maybe China will be like Russia and have many players coming through."

Russia had 18 women in the singles draw at Melbourne, while China had just three: Li, Peng Shuai and Zhang Shuai.

But Li's success at Melbourne in 2010, when she and Zheng both made the semi-finals, ensured enormous publicity for the sport in the world's most populous nation.

She said making the final would only increase tennis's popularity.

"I think maybe because now I am in the final, maybe many young players or children will see me and think: 'Maybe one day we can do the same or even better than her'," Li said.

"So I think we can do even better and I feel that more people will come and watch, more people will pay attention."

Li made people pay attention with her tenacious win over Wozniacki, where she recovered from a error-strewn start to find her form and wear down the world number one in 2hr 35m.

She said she made a lot of errors at the start because she knew Wozniacki would chase down a lot of shots.

"At the beginning of the match I wanted to hit a lot of winners because I knew she wouldn't hit winners against me," Li said.

"So I was feeling that maybe she can follow the way I play, but it didn't work.

"It's tough to play against her -- she's always running. I was thinking some shots I hit a winner but every time she just got the ball back.

"This is tough for me and for all the players."

Li beat Clijsters in the Sydney International final in the lead-up to the Australian Open, recovering from 5-0 down in the first set to win 7-6 (7/3), 6-3.

"She's a good player, a tough player also," Li said of Clijsters. "It's another challenge. Of course it's tough match, but tennis is never easy.

"I am in the final already so I have nothing to lose, just like the beginning of the year (in Sydney).

"I don't need to think about it too much, because the final is on Saturday night so I still have two days. I can totally rest right now."

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