Li Na became the first Chinese player "to win a Grand Slam singles title by beating defending champion Francesca Schiavone” at the French Open women’s final on Saturday, according to Howard Fendrich of the AP. Li said, "China tennis -- we're getting bigger and bigger." State broadcaster CCTV posted the banner, "We love you Li Na," on their “gushing coverage.” CCTV announcer Tong Kexin said, “This has left a really deep impression on the world." Fendrich noted tennis is considered an “elite sport in China, and while participation is rapidly increasing, it still trails basketball, soccer and table tennis, among others.” Li “broke away from the Chinese government's sports system in late 2008 under an experimental reform policy for tennis players” dubbed "Fly Alone." Li was “given the freedom to choose her own coach and schedule and to keep much more of her earnings: Previously, she turned over 65 percent to the authorities; now it's 12 percent.” That comes to “about $205,000 of the $1.7 million French Open winner's check.” Chinese Tennis Association Vice Chair Sun Jinfang said, "We took a lot of risks with this reform. When we let them fly, we didn't know if they would succeed. That they have now succeeded, means our reform was correct." Fendrich noted Li at her post-match news conference “wore a new T-shirt with Chinese characters that mean ‘sport changes everything,’ and offered thanks to Sun” (AP, 6/4). In N.Y., Ian Johnson noted Li’s victory “triggered a patriotic outburst in the country’s state-controlled media.” One editorial called it “the most glorious achievement of 30-plus years of Chinese sports.” Her victory was “front-page news in most Chinese newspapers Sunday, including the Communist Party’s People’s Daily” (NYTIMES.com, 6/5). The AP’s Joe McDonald noted the victory was "front-page news in Japan and Hong Kong, though tennis has only a small regional following and celebratory sentiment might be dampened by unease at China’s rising military might and a series of political strains” (AP, 6/5). The N.Y. Times ran an image of Li on its front page Sunday (THE DAILY).
REACHING THE MASSES: In N.Y., Christopher Clarey noted although tennis “is not yet a sport for the masses in China and its population of 1.3 billion, a mass audience did see Li’s victory on the state sports channel CCTV.” The WTA reported that an “estimated 65 million Chinese watched at least part of Li’s semifinal victory over Maria Sharapova.” Saturday’s final, which “ended shortly before 11 p.m. in China, was expected to draw similar numbers.” WTA Chair & CEO Stacey Allaster said, “She was already a national hero; she’s just going to go to rock-star status. Look at Yao Ming. She’s going to be there.” Clarey wrote that “could be a big stretch considering the status of basketball and Yao in China.” Still, Li will “always be the first Chinese -- and first Asian -- to win a major singles title” (N. Y. TIMES, 6/5). YAHOO SPORTS’ Chris Chase wrote Li’s victory “should help ignite a tennis revolution” in China and “could prove to be a critical boon for a sport badly in need of new markets and sponsors.” Whether the win “ushers in a revolution of Chinese players in women's tennis is an answer we won't know for years.” But if “past history means anything, it probably won't.” Yao Ming was “supposed to do the same for basketball but almost a decade later there's only a handful of Chinese players in the league.” What Li’s victory "will do is something far more important to women's tennis,” as it “brings the game to a country with 1.3 billion people and an appetite for western sports” (SPORTS.YAHOO.com, 6/4). In London, Barry Flatman noted China “already boosts 30,000 tennis courts and since the sport returned to the Olympic Games in 1988 the number of registered tennis players has risen from 1 million to 14 million.” Allaster, who has “backed investment into the grass roots in China and even opened a tour office in Beijing, … immediately recognised Li Na’s victory.” Allaster: “She has made tennis history. This will inspire an entire generation of young girls to play tennis and propel the sport to new levels of global popularity and growth” (LONDON TIMES, 6/5).
JUST LIKE A FINE WINE: The N.Y. TIMES’ John Branch in a front-page piece wrote the Li-Schiavone final “captures a shift that is under way in women’s tennis,” as older players are “dominating the biggest events in a sport long recognized for its teenage sensations.” Li and Schiavone “make up the oldest French Open final pairing since 1986, when Chris Evert beat Martina Navratilova.” The “days of child stars like Tracy Austin, Monica Seles and Jennifer Capriati appear to be in the past,” as the top players “are getting older” (N.Y. TIMES, 6/4).