BEIJING - Li Na's landmark French Open victory sparked celebrations and recognition throughout Asia on Sunday, while China's state media told its athletes to learn from her as they prepare for the London Olympics.
"The First Asian! Li Na is Crowned the Empress of French Tennis," declared Taiwan's China Times newspaper in a headline Sunday.
Li's victory over defending champion Francesca Schiavone on Saturday came at 11 p.m. in Beijing on a holiday weekend, but Chinese state television rebroadcast the match Sunday and it was on the front pages of most newspapers.
People's Daily, the flagship paper of the ruling Communist Party, put a large color photo of Li kissing her trophy at the top of its front page under the headline "Li Na Reached the Summit of the Grand Slam."
Li's career had blossomed since she pulled out of China's government-run sports training system in 2008. That will likely raise questions about the costly system, which has produced Olympic champions in gymnastics and track and field — along with other racket sports such as badminton and table tennis — but has a poor record in more commercial sports such as tennis and golf.
Chinese sports officials publicly congratulated each other in an apparent effort to link the government to the victory, even though Li trains independently.
The Chinese Olympic Committee and other agencies expressed "heartfelt congratulations" in a joint letter to the government's Tennis Sports Management Center, according to the state Xinhua News Agency.
Elsewhere in Asia, the victory was front-page news in Japan and Hong Kong, though tennis has only a small regional following and celebratory sentiment might be dampened by unease at China's rising military might and a series of political strains with its neighbors.
In Japan, which Beijing sees as a rival for regional leadership, news media celebrated Li's victory as an Asian first. The giant Yomiuri newspaper ran a front-page photo of her with her trophy.
"First from Asia," said a headline in the Asahi newspaper.
In Hong Kong, the match was overshadowed in news coverage by commemorations Saturday of the anniversary of China's June 4, 1989, crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square. Tens of thousands of people held candles aloft in a public park and laid a wreath at a makeshift memorial.
In Taiwan, the self-ruled island that Beijing claims as its own territory, Li's victory was the top story in the newspaper United Daily News, under the headline, "In the French Women's singles Li Na is Crowned Empress."
In Singapore, the tabloid New Paper declared, "At Last! A grand slam champion from Asia."
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.
The head of the Chinese tennis federation was quoted at the time as comparing Li to Houston Rockets center Yao Ming and Olympic champion hurdler Liu Xiang, until now China's best known international athletes.
In a microblog comment posted Sunday, Liu Xiang declared Li's victory "amazing and marvelous."
In China, tennis still is an elite sport, running far behind basketball, football and other sports in popularity.
At the Green Bank Tennis Club on Beijing's northern edge, fans gathered late Saturday to watch the match on a big-screen TV set up on a tennis court.
"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 is 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.
Watching Rafa Nadal churn his way through the claycourt season over the past few weeks, it seems nothing much has changed since his French Open triumph a year ago despite a lengthy injury layoff.
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