- Associated Press - Friday, June 3, 2011

PARIS (AP) - With a racket in her hand, Li Na holds the key to a burgeoning tennis boom in China.

The 29-year-old Li, who is trying to become the first from her country to win a Grand Slam singles title, will face defending champion Francesca Schiavone in the French Open final on Saturday.

“Tennis is something of an overlooked sport in China,” the Australian Open runner-up said Friday. “So I hope that it will become more common in China and that more and more people will become fans.”

Li became the first Chinese player to reach a Grand Slam final before losing to Kim Clijsters in January.

In China, a country of 1.3 billion people, the sport is gaining more followers as the middle class grows. Li said she heard 40 million people watched her beat Maria Sharapova on Thursday in the semifinals.

Schiavone, the first woman from Italy to win a major, went through a similar experience 12 months ago. And an increase in youth tennis followed in her country.

“Last year when I won French Open, the percentages of the people that sign (up) in the tennis club, the young, the kids, are much higher than before. So that’s good,” Schiavone said. “Of course, we are not millions and millions like in China, because we are totally _ how many we are? Seventy million?

“So it’s big difference, but we are Italian. We have big hearts.”

Combined, the finalists are the oldest pair in a women’s Grand Slam championship match since Wimbledon in 1998, when Jana Novotna, 29, beat Nathalie Tauziat, 30.

Any questions about Li’s advanced age _ for a tennis player, that is _ comes with some risk.

“I’m not old,” Li said when asked about the recent trend of older Grand Slam champions in the women’s game. “Why do you think I’m old? I feel I’m still young.”

Schiavone is about a 1 1/2 years older than Li, and she is taking her second Grand Slam final in stride.

“I (will) go to take a walk I think this afternoon and then rest a little bit, get some physiotherapy,” Schiavone said of her plans for her day off. “Eating, enjoy with friends. Nothing special.

“I don’t think now (about) Li Na. I will think tomorrow.”

When she does get around to it, Schiavone will be able to recall last year, when she became the first Italian woman to win a Grand Slam title and the oldest woman since 1969 to win her first major title. Along the way to that championship, she beat Li 6-4, 6-2 in the third round, evening their head-to-head record to 2-2.

That wasn’t a surprise, because Schiavone is comfortable on the red clay, while Li has said she was never a fan.

“It’s a mix of everything. So you have to be good physically, mentally,” Schiavone said of the clay. “You can’t play just power, because you have always the time to (defend) and to counterattack.”

Schiavone is playing in her first final since last year’s tournament at Roland Garros. And by winning her second major championship, she would become the first woman over 30 to win a Grand Slam title since Martina Navratilova won Wimbledon at the age of 33 in 1990.

Before that happens, Schiavone will have to take care of Li on Court Philippe Chatrier. That may not be so easy.

“In Melbourne was like first time in the final. You don’t have any experience before you come to the Grand Slam final,” Li said, remembering her experience at the Australian Open. “But I have one time already, so I think I can do better in this time.”

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