China revels in victories by women Down Under
China reveled in its unprecedented success at the Australian Open on Wednesday after Li Na defeated Venus Williams to give the country two players in the semifinals of a Grand Slam.
Li shook off nerves and fought back from a set down and trailing in the second to knock off Williams 2-6, 7-6 (4), 7-5 and reach her first major semifinal.
Officials from the China Tennis Association were watching Li, who joined Zheng Jie in the final four.
``Everybody was excited,'' said Gao Shenyang, the center's deputy director. China's state-run media called the women ``Golden Flowers,'' and China Central Television showed the match live.
Li and Zheng appear to have prospered from a dramatic decision at the end of 2008 to leave China's state-supported sports system and manage their own careers.
Both have since worked with foreign coaches and told state-run media in China that they were happy with the move.
However, Gao was eager to highlight the foundations laid in China.
``The Chinese coaches should also feel greatly encouraged because Zheng and Li started their overseas training last year, and they were trained under the domestic system for a longer time,'' he said. ``It was the Chinese coaches that laid the good groundwork for them.''
No Chinese player has broken into the top 10 or won a major singles title. Li and Zheng have made it into the top 15 - the first time China had two players in the top 20. Li stands at No. 17 and Zheng is ranked 35th.
``Best day of my whole life,'' Li said after the win against No. 6 Venus Williams.
The win puts her on court against another Williams - defending champion Serena - in the semifinals. Zheng's opponent is former No. 1-ranked Justine Henin, who is blazing through her tennis comeback after a temporary retirement.
Moving away from the state sports federation gave the two the freedom to choose their own coaches and schedules and keep most of their winnings - previously the state body collected 60 percent; now Li pays them 12 percent.
While the players must pay their own way to tournaments, Li sees some advantages in her new regimen.
``I was feeling good because I have my team come with me,'' she said.
She is coached by her husband, Jiang Shan, and Swede Thomas Hogstedt, a former No. 35 singles player who coached Tommy Haas back into the top 10 in 2006 and the Chinese national women's team in 2008.
Gao said Chinese tennis officials face a challenge to ensure the next generation of players can keep up with Li and Zheng.
He said the new players have far better equipment and facilities than the two semifinalists once used ``but still they are not doing as well as Zheng and Li when they were the same age.''
``This is something we should really think seriously about,'' Gao said. ``There must be some things we don't pay enough attention to.''
Chinese fans praised the two women online and contrasted their success with the weakness of the country's male tennis players - and with the sad state of the men's soccer team.
Associated Press researcher Zhao Liang contributed to this report.