Li Na hailed as pioneer for first Slam bid

China’s tennis chief has hailed Li Na, the first Asian woman to reach a Grand Slam final, as a “pioneer” and national sports hero on a par with NBA great Yao Ming and star hurdler Liu Xiang.

Li, 28, upset world number one Caroline Wozniacki in the Australian Open semi-finals on Thursday in three tough sets, setting up a historic final clash with three-time US Open champion Kim Clijsters on Saturday.

“Li’s Grand Chance,” blared the China Daily on its front page, underneath a picture of the smiling player from Wuhan, pumping her fist as she celebrated her victory, while the Titan sports newspaper declared “Li Makes History”.

“Epic win”, said the Global Times, devoting nearly half of its front page to a photo of the Chinese number one. In a commentary, the People’s Daily said, “Li Na sets a new benchmark for Chinese sports.”

Sun Jinfang, the head of the Chinese Tennis Association, said Li’s achievements had helped secure her position as one of the country’s all-time sporting greats.

“There is always a pioneer pushing things forward in his or her time and Li is a sporting pioneer of her time,” Sun told the China Daily.

“I think she has an international standing similar to Yao Ming or Liu Xiang. She has been undervalued a little bit due to the relatively low profile of tennis in China.”

Li, currently the world number 11, will move into the number seven spot when the new WTA rankings come out on Monday — a career best. If she wins the title, she will be the fifth-ranked player in the world.

Li was the first Chinese woman to win a WTA title in Guangzhou in 2004, the first to make a Grand Slam quarterfinal at Wimbledon two years later, and the first Chinese player to break into the top 10.

She said in Melbourne that she hoped her success would usher in a tennis boom in China and inspire young players to follow in her footsteps.

Only about 12 million people play tennis regularly in the country, according to figures from China Marketing and Media Study cited by the China Daily — a drop in the bucket in a country of 1.3 billion.

WTA chief Stacey Allaster said Li’s win would boost the popularity of the sport “exponentially” in China — a market where both the women’s tour and the men’s ATP are working to grow the game.

“Women’s tennis is already one of the fastest growing sports in China thanks to the celebrity status and success of Li Na and her compatriots,” Allaster said, according to the China Daily.

“For a number of years now the WTA has been making a significant investment in China to capitalise on this interest at both the professional and grassroots level,” she said.

Sun said Li had a good chance of beating Clijsters, as she did in Sydney earlier this month in the run-up to the Australian Open.

“She always gave us miracles… I think she is capable of another miracle if she continues to challenge herself,” Sun said.

The People’s Daily also rated her chances of a maiden Slam title, saying: “We expect her to go even farther, to fly even higher.”