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Chinese Tennis Growing With Li Na, Zheng Jie

Jan 27, 2010 – 7:26 AM
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Greg Couch

Greg Couch %BloggerTitle%

MELBOURNE, Australia -- Li Na (right) is the rebel, popular among young fans in China. Zheng Jie is the traditionalist, more respectful and popular among everyone else. In some ways, they might represent old China and new.

It takes quick research to understand what's going on in the women's semifinals at the Australian Open.

"Oh my God,'' Serena Williams said. "There's no Russians in the semis. Is this a first?''

Well, it's a first that there are two Chinese players in the semis of a major. Belgium and the U.S. hold the other two spots.

But Li will play Williams on Thursday (Wednesday evening ET in the US.), followed by Zheng against Justine Henin. In all likelihood, this is as far as the Chinese women will go, but this tournament stands as the first real results of a big push that China's government has made into tennis.

"Right now,'' Li said, "it's like step-by-step.''

Li also will move into the top 10 in the rankings next week, the first player from China to reach that high.

She is going to have star appeal and marketability, with a relaxed personality.

When she beat Venus Williams in the quarterfinals Wednesday, she told the crowd that it was the best day of her life. When she was losing, she didn't give up, a lesson she attributed to her coach and husband, Jiang Shan.

"Sometimes he talks too much,'' she said over the p.a. "But nice guy.''

China began its real push in tennis after Li Ting and Sun Tiantian won the Olympic gold in women's doubles in 2004 in Athens. As one Chinese reporter explained, whereas major titles are the big thing in the Western world to tennis, the Olympics are everything in China.

So that gold medal set things off.

Li has had public disputes with the Chinese tennis federation, and also has responded sarcastically to media there over questions she doesn't like.

And last year, Li, Zheng and a few other players were allowed to leave the state sports system to run their own careers, choose their own coaches, keep most of their own money.

Li confirmed that until last year, she was required to give 60 percent of her earnings to the Chinese Tennis Association. In return, the federation paid for her travel, coaches, expenses. Now she has to give only 12 percent.

"Yeah,'' she said. "Not bad.''

But it's not just the money. Li joked about what the changes really meant, but made a point about the freedom to choose her own path.

It's not only an important point for a Chinese player, but also for players in other countries. In the U.S., Donald Young has been asking for help from the USTA, but has also been upset that it wants him to abandon the coaching of his parents. The USTA denies wanting that.

And here in Australia, there is debate over whether it would be best for young players to stick with their own coaches or to join a centralized system.
"Right now, I'm feeling good because I have my team with me,'' Li said. "And then because I'm lazy, if I didn't want to practice, I just tell my team we take day off.

"Before, if I (had) come with national team, I say, 'Can I take a day off,' and maybe they say no. So this was good for me right now. Also I have to (book) flight ticket and reservation for the hotel. Before, federation do everything.

"It was different, but I would say thank you for (giving) me the choice, and I have more experience for tennis.''

Zheng pointed out all the Chinese media in Melbourne, saying it was evidence of tennis' boom status. Roughly 15 reporters are here from China, according to one reporter from Beijing. That's more than the number of American reporters here.

Li, who is 27, started as a badminton player, but coaches felt she was better suited for tennis.

Her modern, rebel status shows with a tattoo on her upper chest. She got the tattoo at 16 to signify her boyfriend, now husband, and used to cover it during matches. But not anymore.

One more thing: After Li beat Williams, someone asked her about her hair, which is red. When did she change the color?

"I always change,'' she said. "Many, many, many times. Just want to see different.

"You should try too.''

The person who had asked her is bald.

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Filed under: Sports
Tagged: jie zheng, li na