by sportswriter Wang Jimin
PARIS, June 5 (Xinhua) -- Chinese tennis chief Sun Jinfang on Saturday gave thumbs up to a record-breaking Li Na and expected the 29-year-old veteran to inspire a greater future for Chinese tennis.
Li made history Saturday as she became the first Chinese player to win a Grand Slam singles title with her 6-4, 7-6 (0) defeat of holder Francesca Schiavone of Italy at the French Open.
Having already this year finished runner-up to Kim Clijsters at the Australian Open and won in Paris, Li has demonstrated that Chinese players can also have a share of glory in the tennis world.
"This win is truly a breakthrough in a sport that has been dominated mainly by players from Europe, Australia and the Americas. It is a massive source of pride for all the Asians and it can serve as a great milestone for the development of Chinese tennis," said Sun, who watched Li's strong play from the stands.
"Li announced herself a professional player by pulling off a great game and showing a high morale. She is a new image of the Chinese sports," she added.
Sun has compared Li to Houston Rockets center Yao Ming and Olympic champion hurdler Liu Xiang, until now China's best known international professional athletes.
China's tennis federation has long been working hard on women's doubles, aiming to make a breakthrough in Grand Slam level and hence helping enhance the singles.
The efforts have got rewarded by three Grand Slam doubles titles, namely 2006 Australian Open and Wimbledon (Yan Zi and Zheng Jie in women's doubles), and 2008 Australian Open (Sun Tiantian with Serb Nenad Zimonjic in mixed).
Li's victory was the fourth at a Grand Slam for China, but definitely the most pivotal one for the sports-crazy nation and will act as an impetus to the game's fast-growing popularity here.
Li was obviously emotional when the Chinese flag was unfurled above the Roland Garros center court for the first time and the Chinese national anthem was played in her honor.
"All the people related to Chinese tennis have contributed to today's success in their own way," Sun said.
Tennis is considered an elite sport in China and while the number of players is growing quickly, it still runs far behind basketball, football, table tennis and other sports in number of participants. In Sun's eyes, Li's win is a huge boost to change that.
"The victory can have a great effect on Chinese tennis, I'm sure it will help reevaluate the sport and inspire more youngsters to play tennis."
Before her stunning success this season, Li has showed a sign of becoming a super star last season, by reaching the semifinals of the Australian Open, with her compatriot Zheng.
It was the first eye-catching performance after the top four elite women players, including Li, Zheng, Yan and Peng Shuai, were freed from the obligation to be managed by the China Tennis Association (CTA) at the end of 2008, and pocketed most of the prize money they earned.
The self-management proved to be a double-edge sword as the released stars were all in decline for a while, even for Li, a player that Clijsters and Svetlana Kuznetsova considered a top 10 blockbuster at least five years ago.
Li is a bit of a rebel who has had her differences at times with the state-run sports system, but she admitted that the system benefited her a lot, with her own family impossible to cover the expenses for training and competing. When Li was battling her knee injury in 2009, she even returned to the system for help.
After a long wait, Li, who will be reaching world number four in next week's WTA rankings, finally walked on a right track and she hoped that her watershed win would inspire a new generation of Chinese players to emerge and challenge the sport's traditional centers of power in Europe, Australia and the Americas.
"I hope that lots of kids see my performance and in their hearts they feel that one day they can be like me and do even better than me," she said.