China rallies for Li's second tilt at glory

Trailblazer Li already has the distinction of being Asia's first to break into a grand slam singles final after her brilliant run at the Australian Open in January.

"If someone can be behind you and push you a lot, I like it," Li told reporters at Roland Garros on Friday.

"I don't even think of tomorrow as a final, it's just the one match."

Asked why she was only flourishing at 29, she hit back saying: "I'm not old, why do you think I'm old. I'm still young?" she laughed.

While the match is likely to be watched by only a smattering of Chinese fans at Court Philippe Chatrier, a massive home audience will watch the match live on television and bloggers are already bubbling with anticipation.

"I'm rooting for you, I wish you well. You are the pride of China and we've got your back!" one with the handle JoJoJiao wrote on the country's most popular microblogging site Weibo.

"Go Li Na! China's 1.3 billion people are behind you," said another.

"Li Na's first charge into the French Open final match is the result of years of hard work and also embodies the rapid development of tennis in China," China's ambassador to France Kong Quan said according to the Foreign Ministry release.

"Using uncommon strength, she soundly defeated Russia's Maria Sharapova and wrote the glory and charm of China's women's tennis players into the books of French tennis history," he said, referring to the Li's Russian semi-final opponent.

Sport and politics remain tightly woven in China, where elite athletes are handpicked from a young age to be nurtured by the state, and only a handful are permitted to manage their own careers.

Li, who was identified as a potential badminton talent as a child, was steered into tennis before her teens, but had to be coaxed back into the game in 2004 after walking away to study media at university.

RELUCTANT STANDARD-BEARER

After numerous clashes with local media and Chinese tennis officialdom over training arrangements and pay, in 2009 the strong-willed Li was permitted with four other top women players to manage her own career and keep a greater share of her winnings.

Li's ability to reach new heights away from the tight embrace of the state has also drawn admiration from locals, while her halting English has been no impediment to charming tennis audiences around the world with her quick wit.

Her unpredictable temper has also kept spectators on edge and during her final loss to Clijsters at Melbourne Park, she demanded the chair umpire tell boisterous Chinese fans in the stands to stop "coaching" her.

After the match, she then drew roars of laughter from the center court crowd by telling her husband and former full-time coach Jiang Shan she would love him forever whether he was "fat or skinny or ugly."

Chinese fans will be eager to see what surprises Li can produce on Saturday in the French capital.

"Of course it's great when a fellow Chinese can succeed from their own hard work independent of the country. I think that her own path to success didn't have much to do with the country as she paid her own way to train," Beijing resident Sun, 34, said.

"Li Na has shown us that an independent professional athlete can rely on herself and her ability to succeed," another Weibo blogger said. "She doesn't need to represent anyone and doesn't need anyone to represent her."

(Reporting by Sabrina Mao and Michael Martina; Additional reporting by Reuters TV in Beijing and Mark Meadows in Paris; Editing by Ian Ransom and Pritha Sarkar)