Australian Open Betting: Na Li's success shows China is a growing force
"In the last year Zheng and Li also have a new motivating force because their rules have been changed so that instead of having to hand over 60 per cent of their winnings to the Chinese Federation they can keep all but 12 per cent."
In the not too distant past, women were banned from playing professional sport in China. But that's all changed now and, says Ralph Ellis, Na Li's success is Melbourne is testament to the nation's emergence as a major power.
When London won the right to stage the 2012 Games they talked about the Olympic legacy. And they are still talking about it. Only today you can find a set of artists impressions published showing the area around the new stadium in Stratford with people happily walking dogs alongside a waterway. And, of course, West Ham's new owners are trying to negotiate their own future for the site by shifting the club away from Upton Park and shifting out the running track.
Ironic, then, that on the same day as our committee publish pretty pictures, the Chinese have shown us what an Olympic legacy should really mean. In the space of 24 hours a nation which had until the last couple of decades kept women away from sport has suddenly got two of them in the Australian Open tennis semi-finals. Na Li knocked out Venus Williams in the early hours of this morning, following Jie Zheng who had already beaten Maria Kirilenko.
On the face of it, that means you can start debating who wins the final out of Serena Williams and Justine Henin right now. Serena is [1.19] to get to the final after she's faced Li, while comeback queen Henin is [1.27] to go through against Zheng. But that would be to ignore how China is becoming a growing force in world sport.
When Beijing won the right to stage the 2008 Olympics, their next priority wasn't about how to make the area around the Bird's Nest Stadium look pretty afterwards, but how they were going to win gold when the Games took place. That meant targeting sports where progress was possible, and they identified the women's tennis doubles as the best chance and poured resources into developing players with the potential to do it.
In the event they fell short with Jie Zheng and Zi Yan winning bronze, but by then they had already captured the Wimbledon doubles title and a host more Chinese players were forcing their way onto the WTF circuit.
Much like the factory farmed American girls like Monica Seles in the 1990s, who flourished under Nick Bollettieri's guidance, the Chinese players all grew up encouraged to take the ball early and hit hard. And that style suits well the hard court in Melbourne.
In the last year Zheng and Li also have a new motivating force because their rules have been changed so that instead of having to hand over 60 per cent of their winnings to the Chinese Federation they can keep all but 12 per cent. That in turn has encouraged Li to invest in her own travelling coaching and physio team.
Zheng, who reached the Wimbledon semi-final two years ago, is the most likely to cause an upset and is value at [4.4]. Henin has a lot of emotion around her comeback and the size of the occasion might just catch up with her against an opponent with nothing to lose.
Li faces the more daunting task. Knocking out one Williams sister is a big achievement, both of them might be asking too much - but expect her to make a fight of it and it's worth trying to lay a Serena win in straight sets anywhere between [1.44] and [1.73]
Five things you might not know about Na Li
1. Born in Wuhan in February 1982, she played badminton until she was nearly nine when her coach said she'd be better suited to tennis and asked her father if she could change
2. She's coached now by Thomas Hogstedt who used to work with Tommy Haas, together with former South African national coach Richard Sutton
3. She likes to dye her hair a different colour every couple of months
4. She has a tattoo of a rose with a heart that was done when she was 16 for her boyfriend - he's now her husband.
5. She turned pro in 1999 and has career earnings of more than £1.5million, even though she took half of last year off for major knee surgery