2 Chinese players surprise with quarterfinal wins
It usually takes something extraordinary to surprise Serena Williams.
That two Chinese players had reached the semifinals of a Grand Slam tournament for the first time was less shocking to the top-ranked Williams than the fact no Russians had made it to the final four at the Australian Open.
``Oh my God, there's no Russians in the semis?'' Williams said Wednesday, when asked about the semifinals pairings. ``Is this a first?''
It is the first time since 2004 that no Russian women have reached the semifinals at Melbourne Park.
That's an indication of how far Chinese tennis has come. Williams, winner of 11 Grand Slam singles titles and long the dominant woman on tour, had been expecting to run into a Chinese player in the latter stages of a major eventually.
Williams had a special interest in Li Na's quarterfinal match on Wednesday, for two reasons. One: Her older sister, Venus, was playing in it; Two: She had to be prepared to play the winner.
Venus Williams, a seven-time Grand Slam singles champion, served for the match at 5-4 in the second set, yet No. 16-seeded Li staged an impressive fightback to win the game and make the semis for the first time at a major.
Zheng Jie, a semifinalist at Wimbledon in 2008, had advanced in the other half of the draw and was playing in the semifinals Thursday against former No. 1-ranked Justine Henin, the 27-year-old Belgian who is two tournaments into a comeback from retirement.
``I'm not surprised,'' Serena Williams said of the Chinese record. ``There's a lot of contenders that play for China. Tons. They're all really good. Especially with Jie doing so well and Li Na doing so well, you've got to expect people in China to be excited, are going to want to put their daughter in tennis.''
The Chinese players have made history in their surprising sweep through Melbourne Park, not only recording or matching their best Grand Slam performances but doing so in synch.
``Good for both players. Also good for China's tennis,'' Li said Wednesday after her 2-6, 7-6 (4), 7-5 upset of Venus Williams. ``Best day for my whole life.''
No Chinese player has ever broken into the top 10 or won a major singles title.
But the 16th-seeded Li is now projected to move into the top 10 when the new rankings are released next week - her highest was No. 15 last October. She faces the most difficult opponent in the draw in the semifinals: Serena Williams has won four of her 11 Grand Slam singles titles in Melbourne.
Zheng, who also reached No. 15 last year, now stands at No. 35 and was unseeded in this tournament. She has defeated three seeded women to set up her semifinal against Henin.
As well as her surprising run to the semis at Wimbledon two years ago, Zheng also teamed up with compatriot Yan Zi to win both the Australian Open and Wimbledon doubles titles in 2006 for China's first Grand Slam trophies.
Now Li and Zheng, on opposite sides of the draw, are making headlines in their own country and in Australia, where Chinese and international media pepper them with questions.
Their competitors, too, are taking them seriously.
Tennis is indeed on the ascendancy in China. The China Open and Shanghai Masters tournaments are popular and last year the state tennis body launched an amateur league called the China Open Rating Tour meant to develop grassroots interest in the sport.
Last year a promising new player, Zhang Shuai, upset then-world No. 1 Dinara Safina in the second round of the China Open in October. Zhang, at No. 226, was the lowest-ranked woman to ever defeat a No. 1.
And this week, China is energized by its national success at the Australian Open. Images of Zheng and Jie cover the front pages of the newspapers and their matches are broadcast live on TV, with the highlights replayed throughout the day.
``I feel tennis is very quickly going up (in popularity) in China,'' Zheng said this week.
Notably, the tournament's two rising Chinese players have progressed without being part of the Chinese state sports program, which evolved after Beijing was awarded the rights for the 2008 Olympics with the initial intention of developing medal prospects.
Along with two other women - Peng Shuai and Yan Zi - Li and Zheng opted to branch out from the state system at the end of 2008.
The move gave them the freedom for the first time to choose their own coaches and schedules and keep most of their winnings - previously the state body collected 60 percent; now they pay between 6 and 12 percent.
While the players must now pay their own way to tournaments, Li sees personal advantages in her new regimen with her own team - like taking a day off practice if she feels lazy.
``Before, if came with national team, I say, 'Can I take a day off?' and maybe they say no to me,'' she said.
Li said being released from the state system has given her a broader tennis experience, with a Swedish coach who exposed her to new techniques, new courts and new practice partners, and raised her to an international level.
Zheng, who has taken on an American coach who has helped her serve, said the changes had helped.
``Last year was the first year I've gone it alone,'' she said. ``There were many things I didn't understand or know about and things weren't easy. I think in my second year, I'm adapting to a lot.''
She was criticized last November by the Chinese Tennis Association, which suggested she was in decline since leaving the program.
But Zheng countered at the time that she was charting new territory.
``In the first year, I crossed the river feeling the stones,'' Zheng told China Weekly magazine. ``My obligation is to try my best to get good results.''