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Li Na: Taking Chinese tennis to the top

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Talk Asia: Li Na
  • Li Na is China's first top 10 tennis player, often portrayed as a rebel
  • Highest ranking of 10 came after reaching semifinal of Australian Open
  • Quit tennis at end of 2002, but returned in 2004 and has risen up rankings since

(CNN) -- China's Li Na hit the heights earlier this year when she made it to the semifinals of the Australian Open, beating Venus Williams along the way.

"I was so excited after I beat Venus [Williams], because I knew this was a special day... and for Chinese tennis because they had two players in the semi-final. I mean, that's not easy for Asian countries," she told CNN.

Li and her compatriot Jie Zheng, who also reached the Australian Open semifinals this year, have given the profile of Chinese tennis a boost. But Li, China's first tennis player to break into the top 10 world rankings, actually quit the game at the end of 2002.

"I was feeling really sick, everyday. I never stopped. I didn't want to kill my body. I mean, I have a long life, I don't want it to be only for tennis," she said.

She was first brought back to the game by a call to play in the Chinese national championships and then returned to the Tour in 2004.

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Wednesday, Feb 17: 13.30 GMT (21.30 Hong Kong)
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Sunday, Feb 21: 09.30, 23.30 GMT (17.30, 07.30 Hong Kong)
  • Tennis
  • Grand Slam Tennis
  • China

"When I was young [the Chinese tennis authorities] paid a lot of money for me to play in tournaments and do everything for me, so if now they need help I have to give back to them," she said.

"The plan was to finish university by 2005 and then finally get some sort of job for life. But after 2005 my ranking was 33 in the world and I thought 'Oh my God, what is going on? I have to continue to play."'

Compared to the more demure Zheng Jie, she's been portrayed as a rebel, sporting a tattoo and once telling Chinese fans to shut up during her semifinal match against Dinara Safina in the Beijing Olympics.

"They kept yelling, 'Kill her!' with every shot... I mean the fans are not bad, I know they just really wanted me to win the match. But maybe next time I will have more experience. I will just keep asking them to be quiet please!"

She also made the decision to leave China's state tennis system after the Beijing Olympic Games. Until then she had to give 65 percent of her winnings to the Chinese government. Today, operating outside of the state system, Li still has to give 12 percent of the winning to the government.

"The Chinese way is different from the Western way, because our government gives you a lot of help and just asks back a little bit... if someone helps you and you never give back, I'd think they didn't want to be friends with me," she explained.

Li is hopeful that other Chinese players will follow in her footsteps, although it may be a long wait for a Chinese man to emulate her Grand Slam tournament performances.

"I believe that in five year for sure, there will be a Chinese guy coming into the Top 50. They are working so hard. In winter training I was with the national team, so I saw a lot of good players among juniors -- young girls and boys. So I was feeling 'Yeah, after three years maybe China will be like Russia or America' -- they have many people coming to play in tournaments," she said.