Li Na Wins French Open Title for China

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On Saturday, China's Li Na became the first Asian player, male or female, to win a Grand Slam singles title by beating defending champion Francesca Schiavone of Italy 6-4, 7-6 (0).  The sixth-seeded Li, who never had won a clay-court tournament before, pounded the ball hard and demonstrated powerful groundstrokes in a solidly played match.

If you are wondering why the new champion is referred to as Li Na and not Na Li, the Women's Tennis Blog provides clarification:

The most important thing is to understand that the first part of a Chinese name is the family name and the second part is the given name, i.e. the order is reverse compared to the Western cultures. Therefore, Li is the family name, Na is the given name.

The way to refer to Li is important because she is on her way to becoming a global superstar. Not only is her success expected to fuel the rapid growth of tennis in the most populous country in the world but she is poised to transcend the sport and become a corporate spokeswoman in the same league as Maria Sharapova or Serena Williams.

Li's awesome triumph is considered a breakthrough in a sport that has long been dominated by European and American players. The win ranks her among the top Chinese sports figures of modern times such as NBA star Yao Ming.

Li  joked with a reporter when asked who was the most famous Chinese athlete. "If I were a man, I would be more famous than Yao Ming. But I'm a woman, who can never be on an equal footing with men. That's the case in China and all over the world."

So far, tennis and golf are the only two sports where women can find a high level of recognition and endorsement. And tennis, which pays equal prize money for all the Grand Slams, is the only one where the women's game is treated on a par with the men's.

Li is considered a straight-shooting, tattooed, individualist and most marketers believe her English-language skills, good humor and slight edge will help her appeal to a large international audience.

She signed a lucrative deal last year with Nike, before reaching the Australian Open final and she also has deals with high-end watch maker Rolex and Haagen Dazs ice cream. Surely, many more sponsorship deals are coming her way.

The 29-year-old Li is the first Chinese star to make it big in such a major sport.  Not surprisingly, Asian-Americans are as proud of her accomplishments as her compatriots. The win lifted Li up to No.4 on the WTA new rankings, tying her with Japan's Kimiko Date-Krumm for the highest an Asian has ever reached.

At the news conference after her French Open win, Li wore a new T-shirt with Chinese characters that mean "sport changes everything,"

Indeed it does.

Tennis is considered an elite sport in China, and while participation is increasing, it still trails basketball, soccer and table tennis, among others. But Li's victory was big news back home, and she's now a national treasure. Her success is expected to fuel the sport's rapid growth in a country of more than a billion people.

Li broke away from the Chinese government's sports system in late 2008 under an experimental reform policy for tennis players dubbed "Fly Alone." Li was given the freedom to choose her own coach and schedule and to keep much more of her earnings. Her dramatic decision to sack her husband as her coach, and chart the course on her own, mark her as an strong individual.

We're looking forward to seeing more of Li Na - and can't wait to see how far her star rises both in China and around the world.

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