Kim Clijsters, Li Na To Play In Tennis Final

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China's new sporting hero is a woman. Li Na, 28, on Saturday will become the first Chinese player to make it to the finals of a grand slam tennis event. She meets Belgium's Kim Clijsters in the Australian Open.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Basketball's Yao Ming was China's first pro sports superstar. And now it looks like there's another on the rise. China's new sporting hero is a woman. And she plays tennis - very well. Tomorrow, 28-year-old Li Na will become the first Chinese player ever to make it to the finals of a grand slam tennis event. She meets Belgium's Kim Clijsters in the Australian Open. NPR's Louisa Lim joins us from Beijing to talk about her.

And Louisa, is everyone there in China talking about the Australian Open?

LOUISA LIM: Yes. It is actually quite big news over here. I mean, many of the Chinese papers have got pictures of her victory - Li Na victory moment pasted(ph) on the front page. And several of them have got two or three pages devoted to her. The China daily today called her a sporting pioneer of her time. And tennis officials are calling her things like the pride of China.

So it is a big deal. I mean, yesterday state-run TV even interrupted their programming on the main news channel to broadcast her match live. I think it's because the Chinese government has invested a huge amount in tennis. It's trying to build up a stable of tennis superstars pretty much from scratch. So her success is a vindication in some ways of that strategy.

MONTAGNE: And how popular is tennis in China?

LIM: Well, it's not really that popular at all. I mean, the sports that are really popular are those that China traditionally dominates in, things like ping-pong and badminton. And Li Na herself tells the story that 20 years ago, when her coach wanted her to switch from playing badminton to playing tennis, they asked her parents for permission. And her parents replied, well, what's tennis?

I mean, nowadays it's a bit different. And the latest figures are that 12 million Chinese play tennis regularly. It sounds a lot, but in a country of 1.3 billion, that's not really that much.

But the Chinese press, they do believe that if Li Na wins this match, she could inspire this whole new tennis craze in China. She herself has said she hopes that China will see a tennis boom like Russia's seen. And she hopes there'll be a whole sort of series of top flight players coming out of China within the next three to five years.

MONTAGNE: And I gather Li Na is unusually outspoken for a Chinese sports star. Tell us a bit about her.

LIM: Yes. Well, Internet users are calling her a symbol of the new China. And she is a really interesting role model. She's quite unconventional. She has a tattoo of a rose on her chest, which is very unusual for a Chinese sports star. And she speaks English and she's funny.

I mean, yesterday after her match she said that she wasn't on form to begin with because she'd been kept awake overnight by her husband snoring. And her husband is actually her coach, Jiang Shan.

And that's really one of the most interesting things about her, that she actually left China's national state-run sports system because she wanted the freedom to train the way she wanted and to choose her own coach. So she is a rebel. And in a country like China, where politics and sports are intertwined, there is a political dimension to her success.

And some of the newspapers are talking about that as well. I mean, the Hong Kong paper the South China Morning Post said in an editorial in her own way Li Na has shown the Communist Party that it need not fear greater individual freedoms.

MONTAGNE: And just very quickly, what are Li Na's chances tomorrow in the Australian Open?

LIM: Well, she's ranked number 11 in the world. Clijsters is number three. And they've met six times in the past. Clijsters won 4-2. But Li Na won in the last match, so it's really anyone's game.

But she is quite driven. And the running joke of the tournament has been that she has said if she wins, her husband/coach is going to allow her to go on a shopping spree with his credit card. So combine that with the draw of being the first Chinese tennis player to win a grand slam final, and she's got a lot to play for.

MONTAGNE: Louisa, thanks very much.

LIM: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Louisa Lim speaking from Beijing.

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