- Associated Press - Saturday, June 4, 2011

BEIJING (AP) - Li Na’s landmark French Open win Saturday drew a massive outpouring of support in China, captivating a nation where tennis’ popularity has been growing rapidly.

“People now can feel it, that Chinese tennis is just too tough. This has left a really deep impression on the world,” announcer Tong Kexin said on state broadcaster CCTV. “Li Na truly deserves to be called a great champion.”

CCTV added the banner “We love you Li Na,” to their gushing post-match coverage after Li became China’s first Grand Slam champion by beating Francesca Schiavone 6-4, 7-6 (0) in the women’s final.

The official Xinhua News Agency sent out a news flash shortly after Li’s victory.

“In such a great final, Li Na deserved the win,” Xinhua wrote.

Excitement was all over the faces of fans who gathered at the Green Bank Tennis Club on Beijing’s northern edge to eat barbecue, drink beer and see China’s long wait for a Grand Slam champion finally come to an end. Watching the award ceremony on a big-screen TV set up on the court, they cheered, jumped the net and waved Chinese flags.

“Throughout China’s history people knew nothing of tennis. Now we’re standing on the summit of the world game,” said Zhang Yueming, the club’s general manager.

Chen Jiaojiao, who said she hails from Li’s home province of Hubei, called the win “a huge boost of confidence for Chinese tennis.”

“She’s brought the country so much glory. She’s really incredible,” Chen said.

China is experiencing the second wave of Li fever this year following her runner-up finish at the Australian Open that saw her dubbed “the pride of China” by the mainstream media.

Chinese tennis federation head Sun Jinfang was widely quoted at the time as comparing Li to Houston Rockets center Yao Ming and Olympic hurdle champion Liu Xiang, until now China’s best known international professional athletes.

Still, the celebrations on Saturday might have been bigger under different circumstances. Li clinched the victory shortly after 11:00 p.m. local time on a holiday weekend when many Chinese had left the cities to visit family. Tennis is considered an elite sport in China and while the numbers of players are growing quickly, it still runs far behind basketball, soccer, table tennis and other sports in numbers of participants.

Li’s victory is expected to change that, a prospect she addressed in her post-match remarks to CCTV.

“I hope that lots of kids see my performance and in their hearts feel that one day they can do even better than me,” she said.

Tennis fan Shi Xinli predicted the win’s effect on Chinese tennis would be “like a mighty storm.”

“I don’t know how many kids are going to be taking it up, how many parents are going to be paying for lessons,” said Shi, a stock investor.