Australian Open: Why Chinese women are breaking into top tennis ranks

China's sports fans gushed with pride as Zheng Jie and Li Na reached the Australian Open semifinals – the first time two Chinese women have made the top 4 at a Grand Slam tournament. Li, after defeating Venus Williams, became China's first tennis player to join the world's top 10.

By , Staff Writer

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    Chinese tennis players Zheng Jie (l.) and Li Na pose with their national flag during the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne on Wednesday.
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Chinese sports fans are elated over the smashing success Chinese women are enjoying at the Australian Open tennis tournament.

For the first time ever, two women from the world’s most populous – but not normally tennis-mad – nation have reached the semi-finals of a Grand Slam tournament, and the Chinese press is bubbling over with national pride.

“More History Beckons for Chinese Tennis,” trumpeted The Global Times in its report on Zheng Jie’s crushing quarterfinal victory over the Russian Maria Kirilenko on Tuesday. Ms. Zheng’s compatriot Li Na is also on a roll, and later scored an upset victory over Venus Williams to join Ms. Zheng in the semis

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Zheng made the semifinals at Wimbledon four years ago, but never has the prospect loomed of an all-Chinese women’s Grand Slam final.

“Chinese golden flowers are the best,” gushed one web surfer on the sports page of Sohu.com, a popular web portal, referring to the two women. By Wednesday afternoon 40,000 people had left comments about the unexpected news from Melbourne.

Freedom from state interference

Though Li and Zheng are both products of China’s strictly regimented sports system, they have moved up the WTA rankings since being given unprecedented freedom a year or so ago to manage their own careers.

Along with a handful of other top Chinese athletes, they can now choose their own schedules, coaches, and practice partners, and they can spend more time on the international circuit getting the exposure to top-level competition that they need.

No Chinese tennis playing men, all of whom rank low in global competition, have been given that privilege, lamented Zeng Shaoxuan, the top-ranked Chinese male player, recently. He is only 328th on the world rankings, and complained in a courtside interview at the Shanghai Masters last October that “Chinese men don’t have many opportunities to play in high-level competition.”

Though the Chinese women are finding their feet in the individualistic world of international tennis, they and their fans are still imbued with the sense that they are playing for China.

“For Zheng Jie, for me, for my country and my fans it is a good thing,” Li told reporters after her dramatic come-from-behind defeat of Williams. That result pushed her into the world’s top 10, the first time a Chinese player has made that grade.

Next, Li faces the other Williams sister, Serena, the world's No. 1 women's player and a four-time Australian open champion. Zheng will play against former No. 1-ranked Justine Henin of Belgium.

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