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Chinese euphoria at women's double

By Jaime FlorCruz, CNN Beijing Bureau Chief
Zheng reached the Wimbledon semifinals in 2008 and is now through to the last eight of the Australian Open.
Zheng reached the Wimbledon semifinals in 2008 and is now through to the last eight of the Australian Open.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Women's tennis players Zheng Jie and Li Na have sent the whole of China into euphoria
  • The pair have reached the semifinals of the Australian Open, the first time two Chinese players have achieved feat
  • Hailed by Chinese tennis fans as "golden flowers", Zheng and Li are earning plenty of plaudits at home

Beijing, China (CNN) -- Zheng Jie and Li Na have sent the whole of China into euphoria with their dominating form in the knockout stages at the Australian Open in Melbourne.

It is the first time in history the nation has provided more than one player in the last four of a grand slam tennis event.

Zheng, the 2008 Wimbledon semifinalist, swept past Russian Maria Kirilenko in the quarterfinals after earlier eliminating Ukrainian Alona Bondarenko and seeds Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez and Marion Bartoli -- and will next play Belgium's Justine Henin for a place in the final.

Meanwhile, in the other half of the draw, compatriot and 16th seed Li upset the odds by defeating sixth seed Venus Williams in the quarterfinals to set up a last-four clash with the American's sister and reigning champion Serena.

Hailed by Chinese tennis fans as "golden flowers," Zheng and Li are earning plenty of plaudits at home.

"Zheng's victory is very encouraging," quoted Sina.com. "Though physically exhausted after three tough games, she managed to hold up her spirit and persevere till the end. Her strong spirit is the key to all her success."

The Huaxi City Post noted that while Zheng Jie is not the top ranked Chinese player, "she is definitely the best in China in terms of her will to win, the ability to attract sponsorship money and to regularly pull off good results."

Sports officials in Beijing say they are elated but not surprised by the Chinese breakthrough in Melbourne.

Though physically exhausted after three tough games, she managed to hold up her spirit and persevere till the end.
--Sina.com

Gao Shenyang, a director at China's sports commission, told Chinese media: "Given the competitive form of Zheng Jie and Li Na, what they have achieved in Melbourne is not surprising to us.

"Their success shows that Chinese tennis players can find their rightful place in the tennis world."

The breakout for Chinese women tennis came in 2004, when little-known duo Sun Tiantian and Li Ting snatched gold in the doubles at the Athens Olympics.

Zheng, a doubles expert, then produced a stunning run to the Wimbledon semifinals in 2008. The same year, she teamed-up with Yan Zi to win the bronze medal at the Beijing Olympics.

Lu Ang, a commentator at CCTV's tennis and golf channel, credits the record of Chinese players to the revamp of China's sports system, which now encourages more individual initiative and more international competition.

"The state-sponsored sport system restrained players from competition abroad in the past, which was bad for a player's growth."

But in 2008 the Chinese government loosened its day-to-day control of top athletes, allowing them to manage their own careers, choose coaches and training regimen, and arrange travel schedules.

They cover their own expenses but are expected to hand over to the government sports agency a smaller part of their earnings.

Li and Zheng are now big business in China, earning plaudits in the media and attracting valuable commercial endorsements.

Last year, Zheng signed a lucrative endorsement deal with ANTA, a sportswear company in China with ambitions to break out overseas. She also endorses Mercedes Benz.

The success of these players is expected to spawn more interest in tennis, especially among the youth.

Tennis courts and academies are sprouting up in many Chinese cities, attracting youths who aspire to become the country's next big stars.

Given China's 1.3 billion population, more tennis prodigies are expected to emerge in the near future.