China delight as 'Golden Flowers' bloom in Melbourne

By Nick Mulvenney and Liu Zhen

BEIJING (Reuters) - Zheng Jie and Li Na's march to the semi-finals of the Australian Open is a "great achievement" that will act as a superb example to young Chinese players, the China Tennis Association (CTA) said on Wednesday.

Live television coverage allowed China's millions of tennis fans watch Li come from a set down to shock Venus Williams and join Zheng in the last four in Melbourne on Wednesday morning -- the first time two Chinese had gone so far at a grand slam.

"I am extremely delighted," Gao Shenyang, deputy director of the CTA, told Reuters by telephone.

"We couldn't possibly imagine that they would do so well at the beginning of the Australian Open. I congratulate them on their outstanding performance and great achievement.

"They are good examples to encourage the younger players in China," he added.

Zheng next plays Justin Henin in her second grand slam semi-final -- she lost at the same stage as a wildcard at Wimbledon in 2008 -- while Li faces Venus's sister Serena or Victoria Azarenka in her last four tie.

The prospect of an all-Chinese grand slam final on Saturday, while attractive, was still a step too far to contemplate even for the bullish Gao.

"I hope they both do well in their next matches but I'm not making any predictions," he said. "I hope they do their best on the court."

The blooming of China's "Golden Flowers" at Melbourne Park was also something of a vindication for the decision to allow the pair to leave the state sports system and manage their own careers.

The CTA's move to give Li, Zheng and two other top players the power to choose their own coaches and keep nearly all of their prize money was opposed by some conservatives in the paternalistic system.

"These two players laid the groundwork last year and one year on, they have got a firm foothold," he said. "They are mature enough to manage themselves and have also proved that they now have a better understanding of tennis."

FOREIGN COACHES

Both have benefited from working with foreign coaches of their own choosing, Zheng bringing the renowned American Nick Bollettieri and Li working with Swede Thomas Hogstedt.

Li, who has often been accused of failing to fulfill her potential and whose relations with CTA officials has often been fraught, had benefited in particular, Gao thought.

"Li Na has showed very obvious improvement in both her technique, tactics and psychological approach," he said of the temperamental 27-year-old.

"She now has more variety in her play, she's not simply hitting the ball as hard as she can. Her performance is more consistent and she's more mentally stable during her matches.

"She showed that by coming back after losing the first set and coming from behind in the second set against Williams."

Zheng's quarter-final thrashing of Russian Maria Kirilenko played very much second fiddle to China's soccer matchfixing scandal in Wednesday's sports pages.

(Editing by John O'Brien)