China's "Golden Flower" Li stuns fans back home

By Ben Blanchard

Li, affectionately known as "Big Sister Na" and "Golden Flower" in China, overcame Italian Francesca Schiavone in the French Open final in Paris, a match watched by millions who stayed up late into the night.

"The Chinese have always been a little behind in tennis, but we kept working hard and today we have won our first championship, and what a groundbreaking victory it was," said Song Qiaosui, 30, who cheered on Li with friends in a sports bar in Beijing's fashionable Sanlitun district.

Trailblazer Li already had the distinction of being teh first player from an Asian country to reach a grand slam singles final at the Australian Open in January.

But less than six months later in France, the 29-year-old from the Yangzte river port of Wuhan overcame her nerves -- and sometimes fiery temper -- for a victory that will reverberate around the European-dominated women's game.

"It's a miracle, a breakthrough, a first in more than 100 years of tennis," the presenter on state television's main sports channel, which showed the game live, exclaimed breathlessly as Li clinched the winning shot.

For many young people in China, Li is a role model, with her steely determination, broad smile and English language skills emblematic of a confident and rising country.

"I'm going to shout your victory out loud until I'm hoarse! You deserve it!" wrote "Janefree Big Love" on China's popular Weibo microblogging site.

Real estate agent Di Que, also watching in a bar, said she had won new respect for the game with Li's victory.

"I didn't used to understand tennis all that much but because of Li Na I have fallen in love with it," said the 26-year-old. "I hope that my child will grow up with a love for tennis, with me fostering their interest. We would like tennis to be a part of Chinese people's lives from a young age."

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

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

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

China has a history of placing enormous expectations on athletes who have reached international acclaim and each live broadcast is usually viewed as a barometer of global standing or national pride.

In 2008, when defending champion Liu Xiang was forced to drop out of the 110 metres hurdles at the Beijing Olympics due to an injury, his withdrawal was met with tears, anger and accusations that the athlete had let the nation down.

Li is among a handful of top women players whose success in an individual game inevitably conflicted with their country's Soviet-style sports system.

"In such a great final, Li Na deserved the win," the official Xinhua news agency commented of her victory in France. "She is no doubt a history-maker."

(Additional reporting by Reuters Television)