Li Na the poster girl for tennis' push into Asia

In seeking her second grand slam title, she will have tacit support from the highest level

PUBLISHED : Friday, 24 January, 2014, 10:44pm
UPDATED : Friday, 24 January, 2014, 10:44pm


On one side of the net is a 24-year-old Slovak "pocket rocket", and on the other is China's shining star, 31-year-old Li Na, who is the hottest property in tennis.

The diminutive Dominika Cibulkova is aiming to hustle her way to a maiden grand slam at the Australian Open while Li is hungry for the same crown, which she missed out on twice before. She was a finalist in 2011 and last year.

In becoming Asia's first grand slam champion at the 2011 French Open, the wise-cracking Chinese star brought tennis to a huge potential new audience, including 1.3 billion of her compatriots and a region encompassing two-thirds of humanity.

Women's Tennis Association (WTA) chief Stacey Allaster has put Li, 31, front and centre of a concerted push into Asia, including multiple new tournaments in China and the end-of-season championships in Singapore.

In September, Li's home city of Wuhan will host a new, premier-level tournament, one of six WTA events on Chinese soil this year.

So when Li takes aim at her second grand slam title against Cibulkova on Saturday, it is fair to say she will have tacit support from the highest level.

The Slovak, who is also known as the "energiser bunny", is the smallest player in the top 50 at 1.61 metres, and if she beats China's star in the final she will become the shortest grand slam champion.

Clearly height matters little, with Cibulkova dismantling the game of statuesque Russian Maria Sharapova, who is almost a foot taller, en route to the decider at Melbourne Park.

"It's not about how tall you are. Even if you are tall, it doesn't mean that you are 100 per cent going to make it," said Cibulkova, inspired by former world No 3 Amanda Coetzer, another shorty, when growing up.

"It's just that you have to really want something and just believe in it. There is nothing more important than this."

The 1.72-metre Li has high hopes of being the first Asian winner of the "grand slam of the Asia-Pacific". Often seen as a maverick, she defied Chinese convention by getting a tattoo.

The Chinese system initially groomed Li for badminton. But she was switched to tennis, against her wishes, at nine.

"At the time, tennis was not so popular in China. After my family saw the court, they said, 'Okay, we'll change'. I was like, 'Why didn't you ask me?"