Li Na at the Australian Open: China’s Kournikova moment?

Chinese tennis player Li Na lost a hard-fought Australian Open final against Kim Klijsters but in doing so she may have spurred on many young players.

Fans of sport and celebrity gossip will remember Anna Kournikova, a glamorous Russian tennis player who never quite reached the top of the game. For a number of years Kournikova had a very high public profile without ever winning a tournament. She faced significant criticism and her playing career was curtailed by injury.

However, she was the pioneer that inspired what has become a production line of world-class female Russian tennis players. Maria Sharapova, Svetlana Kuznetsova and Anastasia Myskina have all won Grand Slam titles in the last ten years and there are currently six Russian women in the world top 20, more than from any other country.

Li Na is the first male or female Chinese player to reach a singles Grand Slam final. Having been in and out of the world top 20 over the last few years and controversially broken away from the state training system, she will now rise to a career high of seventh. In what looks set to be a very open year for women’s tennis, she could yet win a title.

But the real beneficiaries may be those who follow in the years to come. Of the three other Chinese women in the world top 100, the youngest is 22. Li Na’s achievement in reaching the final was covered extensively in Chinese media and Stacey Allaster, Chief of the Women’s Tennis Association, was reported as saying that her success would boost the sport “exponentially” in China.

Tennis produces global stars from time to time (the Williams sisters, Federer, Nadal), but viewing figures and the popularity of the sport in each country tend to rise and fall in line with the success of their players. To increase its appeal, tennis therefore needs champions from as many countries as possible.

British tennis fans will be hoping that Andy Murray can also be a pioneer. Unfortunately, he may be on his own for a while – British number two James Ward is ranked 207 in the world.

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