Li, the first Chinese to play in a Grand Slam singles final, lost to Kim Clijsters 3-6, 6-3, 6-3 Saturday in Melbourne.
“The Chinese fans were prepared to express their feelings and shed their tears of excitement,” China Central Television announcer Tong Kexin said. “We were just one step from victory.”
CCTV had predicted that about 15 million people would watch the match live on its sports channel. CCTV read text messages from citizens just after Li lost, including ones that said, “No problem. We’ll always support you” and “You’re the pride of China.”
“The meaning isn’t just in victory,” Tong said. “This will have a benefit on the sport that we perhaps can’t measure just yet.”
There had been expectations that a victory for Li in a Grand Slam tournament would inspire a rush of new players in a country where table tennis and badminton remain far more popular.
Li, with her courtside humor and bubbly personality, endeared herself to fans in Melbourne and around the world. However, she hasn’t always followed protocol.
Li took the rare step of breaking away from the Chinese state-run sports system in 2008 and hired her own coach. At the end of the 2010 season, she replaced former coach Thomas Hogstedt with her husband, Jiang Shan.
She also tried to quiet Chinese fans during the final.
Trailing 4-3 in the second set, Li went up to chair umpire Alison Lang of Britain and asked: “Can you tell the Chinese don’t teach me how to play tennis?” That was in reference to some yelling from the crowd. They were saying “finish her” and “beat her” and later “calm down” in Chinese, which seemed to bother Li.
Li ascended to No. 11 in 2010 with three singles titles. Chinese tennis federation head Sun Jinfang has been widely quoted as comparing Li to Houston Rockets center Yao Ming and Olympic champion hurdler Liu Xiang.
“No matter how the Australian Open final ends, Li’s achievement will doubtless inspire more youngsters to follow in her footsteps,” the state-run Xinhua News Agency wrote before the final. “It adds a strong evidence of China’s strength in the sporting world.”