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article imageLi Na: A Chinese fairytale

By Zhenyu Li     Jun 9, 2011 in Sports
Beijing, China - Li Na, the Chinese 'Golden Flower' bloomed into glory Saturday afternoon by pinning China on the grand slam map.
The sixth seed beat last year's champion Francesca Schiavone 6-4 7-6 in the French Open final, becoming the first player from an Asian nation to win a grand-slam title. By winning Saturday, Li who has earned 5 WTA and 19 ITF singles titles moved to No. 4 in the world rankings.
Li's historical triumph was hailed as a sign of China's rising soft power. Her victory would inspire a new generation of Chinese players to emerge and challenge the sport's traditional centers of power in Europe, the Americas and Australia.
It's hard to overstate what a disadvantage it's been for Li to come to tennis from China, a nation with virtually no tradition in the sport, and it's easy to underestimate how many grounds Li has had to cover from an unknown Chinese novelty of yesterday to where she is today—lofting a Grand Slam singles trophy, beaming.
Li who was born on February 26, 1982, in Wuhan, Hubei, China came to tennis, a sport that was utterly unfamiliar in China at the time, at age 9.
Li grew up in China's highly centralized and rigid sports program, a style adopted from the Soviet Union. The Chinese government invests heavily in sport and recruits athletes at a young age. Although this system has created a number of world champions across many sports, it is infamous for its strict management and the sacrifices athletes are expected to make.
At the age of six, Li was selected to play badminton at her local sports school. Her father, an amateur badminton player who died from cardiovascular disease when Li was 14, was keen for her to focus on badminton until her coach introduced her to tennis. Li switched to tennis at the age of 9 and joined China's National Tennis Team in 1997. She graduated to the ITF circuit and by age 20 she was in the Top 200.
At the end of 2002, Li left the national tennis team to study at Huazhong University of Science and Technology, where she completed her bachelor degree in journalism eventually in 2009. Li returned to the national team in 2004.
At that time, Chinese athletes still had no hope for success on an international scale without the support of the all-powerful state.
In late 2008, Li quit the China's tennis program becoming a free player and started her own team. With this new arrangement, she was able to choose her own coach and pay 8-12% of her winnings to the government compared with 65% in the past.
This means she is now responsible to her own financial security, paying for her coach, traveling and everything on her own. Many in China consider this to be a very daring move for someone who has always been looked after by the Chinese sports system.
However, Li's career has ridden on a high-speed rail since she pulled out of the system in 2008 and reached a climax in 2011, advancing to the Australian Open finals in January and capturing Saturday's French Open crown.
With the win today Li Na completed her journey from a novelty to Grand Slam champion, a fairy tale journey that recounts China's growing might on the world stage.
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