Chinese players hail Li’s victory as breakthrough

BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND (AP) - Li Na’s Chinese colleagues on the WTA tour say her French Open title will bring an influx of new players from the Asian country and could have a major impact on the sport.

Former Wimbledon semifinalist Zheng Jie and Peng Shuai are the only other Chinese players to have been ranked in the women’s top 20. They were full of praise for Li at this week’s Aegon Classic grass-court tournament in Birmingham, England.

Zheng said “Li Na’s win is huge, it will bring a big change.”

Peng added that “I think tennis in China now will get more and more popular.”

Li beat defending champion Francesca Schiavone in the French Open final to become the first Chinese player to win a Grand Slam singles title.

Zheng and Li practice together, and she thinks the breakthrough will help her confidence by being around a Grand Slam champion. But the biggest impact will be the galvanizing effect it has on younger Chinese players.

“I expect to see other Chinese girls come up now,” she said.

Zheng credited Li’s success partly a significant policy change in China after the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, which allowed some players to pull out of the government-run sports training system and practice independently.

“There are four (of) us who are allowed this _ me, Li Na, Peng Shuai and Zhang Shuai,” she said. “It was very good of the federation to do that for us, because no other sports federation in China does this. I am so thankful that we can choose for ourselves.”

As a sign of the sport’s growing popularity in China, the French Open final was watched by 116 million TV viewers in the country, according to state broadcaster CCTV. The previous record for a tennis match in China was the 60 million who watched Li lose to Kim Clijsters in this year’s Australian Open final.

“I think that firstly it’s really good for tennis in China because before not many people know tennis,” Peng said. “It has improved step by step, because first there was the (2004) Olympic doubles gold medal (won by Li Ting and Sun Tiantian), which was really big.

“And now Li Na wins a Grand Slam, people will think ‘Tennis, OK.’ Now we will have more players and more good players on the tour.”

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