Breaking new barriers

Chinese sensations Li Na and Zheng Jie have taken turns setting new standards for their country

Breaking new barriers

golden flowers: Zheng Jie (left) and Li Na kept the Chinese flag flying high with their tenacious performances that far exceeded expectations at the Australian Open. AFP

Li is the temperamental outsider, the rose tattooed on her chest a sign of the rebelliousness that has led to numerous clashes with Chinese officialdom and media, and to her walking away from tennis altogether for a couple of years.

Big and strong with a fierce forehand, the 27-year-old has all the attributes required to succeed in the power-dominated modern game but has often lacked the mental strength to fulfill that potential.

Zheng is the darling of the Chinese media, a Communist Party member who was prepared to subsume her singles ambitions into the attempt to retain the women's doubles title at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

The diminutive 26-year-old hustles and harries around the court with a never-say-die attitude and has worked assiduously on improving her strength and serve to make the most of her talents.

Despite their differences, though, since China's first breakthrough in women's tennis at the 2004 Athens Olympics, when Sun Tiantian and Li Ting won a shock gold, Li and Zheng have alternated in setting new standards for their country.

Having been persuaded to return to the game in 2004 after two years at university, Li was the first Chinese player to win an event on the WTA circuit, the first ranked in the top-20 and the first to reach a grand slam quarterfinals at Wimbledon in 2006.

Zheng won China's first Grand Slam title with Yan in the women's doubles at the 2006 Australian Open and was the first to reach a singles semifinal at a Grand Slam with her fairytale run as a wildcard at the 2008 Wimbledon championships.

At the Beijing Olympics, Zheng and Yan fell short of the retaining the doubles title but were still cheered to the rafters, Zheng invoking the "Sichuan spirit" after the shattering earthquake that smashed her home province earlier that year.

Li, who was China's best hope for a gold medal in the singles but had been repeatedly chided for her "weak mentality" by Chinese officials in the run-up to the Games, lost in the semifinals after barking "shut up" at her noisy compatriots.

Both Li and Zheng lost in the semifinals in Melbourne but it has failed to stem an outpouring of national pride in the achievements of their ‘Golden Flowers.’

The defeats -- Li's a tight 7-6, 7-6 loss to Serena Williams, Zheng's a 6-1, 6-0 thrashing
at the hands of Justine Henin -- were explained in a People's Daily article headlined "Why they did not progress".  The analysis highlighted Serena's incredible Grand Slam pedigree and Henin's power as the key factors, but ended on an upbeat note.  "This was a wonderful beginning for Chinese tennis, we are expecting a better future."

Li and Zheng's success was also seen as a vindication of the China Tennis Association (CTA)'s groundbreaking decision to allow China's top four women tennis players to leave the state sports system and manage their own careers last year.

CTA head Sun Jinfang received plaudits for the progressive move, known as the "flyaway" policy, which was opposed by some hardliners in the sports apparatus.

The CTA may have been forced into action to ameliorate unhappy players, but it is a example which will be increasingly relevent as Chinese athletes become more and more exposed to the market forces of professionalism in international sport. "Letting them go was correct," said the Beijing News.

"The Golden Flowers have proved that self-management and professionalisation are a must," it went on. "As Madame Sun said 'It was not what we wanted to do, it was what trends forced us to do.'

"The past year has shown us which system is more suitable for the current and future development."

Sun, a product of the paternalistic state system and national hero herself as captain of a world champion volleyball team, continues to be reluctant to give younger, lower-ranked players their freedom.

For Li and Zheng, their run to the semifinals means a financial windfall. Once 65 percent of their prize money went to the sports system but they now get to keep almost all of it. And the $400,000 a losing semifinalist at Melbourne Park pockets will go a long way in a country where the annual per capita income in rural areas is 5,153 yuan ($754.9).

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