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China cheers Li Na, an unlikely tennis champ

The bar was Irish, the sport originally French, but the zeitgeist on this night in Beijing was all about China.

“China has made it into the history books once again. We’re going to take on the world and no one can stop us,” exulted Lei Jianbo, seconds after the match point that made Li Na the first Chinese player to win one of tennis’ Grand Slam singles tournaments.

That the geopolitical implications went far beyond the bounce of the tennis ball was clear to Lei and his friends, well-dressed professionals in their 20s and 30s who had gathered Saturday evening at a Beijing bar called Paddy O’Shea’s.

They were watching the broadcast live from the French Open with such intensity they barely sipped their Tsingtao beers and spoke only to utter occasional tennis blandishments such as hao qiu, or good ball, and jia you, which means literally add fuel — the most popular cheer at Chinese sporting events.

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“I’m so proud and I know all of China feels the same,” gasped Zhou Xuan, 29, on the verge tears as Li at last clinched the winning shot against defending champion Francesca Schiavone of Italy.

Chinese affect modesty about their country’s economic prowess; with sports, it’s cool to let loose and celebrate. “A miracle, a breakthrough, a first in more than 100 years of tennis,” gushed a presenter for the national broadcaster CCTV as Li reveled in victory on the court. “Li Na, we love you!” read banner scrolling across the bottom of the television screen.

“It’s amazing,” said Li, 29, speaking in charmingly broken English to a journalist after the match. She said she’d received a text message from a friend in China who told her, “They are crying in China because they saw the national flag was come up.”

The victory is especially sweet for Chinese, who are relative newbies at a game invented in Europe and long associated with the country-club set. Barely a generation ago, you had to explain to many Chinese that tennis was like pingpong played with a big, fuzzy ball. Today it is the third-most watched sport on Chinese television, behind basketball and soccer, and is gaining popularity among players.

China has 30,000 tennis courts and an estimated 14 million of its people regularly play the game, up from 1 million in 1988, according to the Women’s Tennis Assn.

“Tennis is very fashionable right now, people are becoming wealthier and tennis is seen as a classy sport, just like in Europe or America,” said Xiao Li, 25, a recent law school graduate who was playing Saturday afternoon at the Beijing University of Chemical Technology.

“Zhang Depei won, but this is the first real Chinese person with a chance of winning a Grand Slam,” he added, referring to the Chinese name of Michael Chang, a Chinese American who at 17 became the youngest male to win a Grand Slam, in 1989.

“Everyone is paying attention to this match, people that don’t even play tennis will all watch the final,” added Li Kazhao, 22, an accounting major who played wearing a sun visor in the trademark style of Li Na.

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Sohu Sports, a Chinese website, reported that “Big Sister Na” — Li Na’s nickname — would receive from her win in France 234 times the annual earnings of an average Chinese worker. “But she absolutely deserves it!”

As China’s new sports darling, Li is an attractive figure; she has a telegenic smile and a compelling narrative of overcoming adversity to triumph. She was born in the Yangtze River city of Wuhan, and her father was a badminton player who died when she was 14. Li played badminton for two years before taking up tennis at age 9. She played for two years on China’s national tennis team and turned professional in 1999, but retired at 20 to study journalism. Her college classmates didn’t know she played tennis.

“I didn’t even want to talk about I was tennis player something,” she told an interviewer in January. “During the time, tennis is not so popular in China. So they think like, OK, not so interesting.”

After graduation, Li decided tennis might be a better career than journalism after all. She rejoined rejoined China’s national tennis team in 2004, but quickly clashed with the national coaches over the constraints of a Soviet-style state sports system.

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According to Chinese sports tabloids, she was unhappy that players’ shares of the earnings were too low and that she couldn’t hire a personal coach. Reportedly, sports officials also objected to her relationship with teammate Jiang Shang, who later became her husband and coach. She quit the national team in 2008.

Her career hasn’t traveled a straight path from there. She has been plagued by injuries that have forced her to sit out seasons. In January, she became the first Chinese player to make it to a Grand Slam final, although she lost to Kim Clijsters of Belgium. Shortly afterward, she switched coaches — in effect demoting her husband.

“I try to never say, ‘I fire you,’” Li explained in an interview last week.

Although Li is reputed to have a fiery temper, she managed to keep her cool Saturday during the tournament and interviews. Afterward, a European reporter asked her on camera how she felt about winning on June 4, a date when Chinese government critics in Hong Kong and elsewhere commemorate the anniversary of the 1989 crackdown on student demonstrators at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.

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The Chinese government normally allows no public discussion whatsoever of the crackdown, in which hundreds, perhaps thousands, of protesters died. On this occasion, CCTV surprisingly did not cut away from the interview. But the simultaneous translation into Chinese stopped abruptly, leaving Li’s answer in English audible.

“I don’t have to answer this question. We should focus on tennis today,” she replied, the smile vanishing from her face. “And actually, I don’t really know what happened.”

barbara.demick@latimes.com

Haas is a news assistant in The Times’ Beijing bureau. Times staff writer Henry Chu in Paris contributed to this report.


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