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Li pleases crowd, presses on to quarters
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08:42, August 14, 2008

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· Beijing 2008 Olympic Games
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Eight years ago, Li Na flew to the Sydney Olympics by herself.

Without fans and teammates to cheer her on, she bowed out in the first round.

But now, playing at the Olympic Green Tennis Center in Beijing, Li is surrounded by Chinese fans and reporters, even though Chinese athletes were fighting for - and winning - gold medals in three other events at different venues at the same time.

Tennis has been on an impressive upward curve in China in the past eight years. It is now one the most popular sports, and fans are looking toward the hard court to satisfy their hunger for gold medals.

The 26-year-old from Hubei did not let her fans down yesterday. She was in top form coming in to the Games, and she took another step toward her gold-medal goal by beating Estonia's Kaia Kanepi 4-6, 6-2, 6-0 to enter the quarterfinals.

"I was thrilled by the crowd," Li said. "I didn't expect so many fans to be here supporting and cheering us on. I know there are many events taking place on the same day. I am a little surprised they chose tennis this time."

Tennis here is enjoying a golden age since the Chinese Tennis Association (CTA) was founded in 1955, and expectations are high. Since Li Ting and Sun Tiantian won China its first Olympic tennis gold medal in Athens 2004, the sports authority has said its Olympic goal is to win medals in both singles and doubles events.

According to CTA vice-director Gao Shenyang, tickets at the Tennis Center sold out seven months ago. The excitement seems to have benefited Li more than anyone. More than 10,000 fans cheered her on at Center Court yesterday, after she upset Russian world No 3 Svetlana Kuznetsova in the first round.

Fans waved Chinese flags and chanted "Go China" throughout the match, as referees often had to quiet spectators.

"I opted for tennis rather than weightlifting and basketball today, even though I know Chinese lifters will win a gold medal there," said 39-year-old Wang Meng, who chose tennis when he bought his tickets. "I won't have a chance to see the gold medal since this is just a third-round competition, but I just want to watch our tennis players play against those big names we watch on television. This is a brand new experience for me."

Zheng, who was ousted by French Open champion Dinara Safina yesterday, said the enthusiastic home crowd was very inspiring to her.

"I feel extremely proud to participate in such a great Olympics at home," she said. "It is very different from any other tournaments with the atmosphere and the spectators cheering for me.

"I know they really want me to play my tennis rather than to worry about the result."

Since 2003, China's sports authority has sent players to international tournaments. Their efforts have been paying off.

In the latest WTA rankings, five Chinese are in the top 100: Zheng is No 38, Li Na is No 42, Peng is ranked 50, Yan No 52, and Yuan Meng is ranked 96.

China ranks fifth among countries in terms of the number of top-100 players, behind Russia (17), France (9), Spain (6) and Italy (6).

"We are so proud that we have an opportunity to play against top players, whom we could hardly even see only a few years ago," Zheng said.

Li is the only Chinese in the singles quarterfinals while two pairs, Zheng/Yan, Peng/Sun are still fighting for a doubles medal.

Li will face world No 8 Venus Williams today and she believes she has a chance to make history.

"I'll try to push her hard and give her a hard time," Li said. "The whole world knows she is a very powerful player, but I have defeated top-10 players several times before, so I won't write myself out of the Olympics."

China's singles ace collected her third win at the Games yesterday after surviving an early scare against the Estonian hart-hitter Kanepi.

"I wanted to win but I played conservatively and I couldn't find my rhythm at first, but I finally found my chance," Li said.

Not long after Li's triumph, however, Zheng could not match the mighty Safina, losing in straight sets. It was Zheng's third consecutive loss to the Russian, the last one coming at the French Open in May, when Safina demolished Zheng 6-2, 7-5.

Zheng became the first Chinese to reach a Grand Slam semifinal at Wimbledon this year, capping a successful return from an ankle injury, which caused her to miss six months in 2007. But Safina's solid groundstrokes eliminated Zheng's hopes of advancing.

Source: China Daily

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