China's Li forges latest Asian breakthrough

Women's singles champion Na Li of China poses with the trophy by the banks of the River Seine on day fourteen of the French Open on June 4, 2011 in Paris, France. (GETTY IMAGES)

Li Na's stunning French Open victory barged down yet another door for sport in Asia, whose athletes are enjoying a growing presence on the world stage.

From tennis to golf, football and the Olympics, sportsmen and women from the diverse and increasingly wealthy region are showing they can not only mix it with European and American stars, but win - and do so repeatedly.

So when Li, 29, collapsed in celebration on to the red clay of Roland Garros, it was with relief more than surprise after a success that had an air of inevitability following her Grand Slam final debut in January.

"This win is truly a breakthrough in a sport that has been dominated mainly by players from Europe, Australia and the Americas," said Chinese tennis chief Sun Jinfang.

With her straight-sets win over defending champion Francesca Schiavone, Li became the first Grand Slam singles champion from Asia, a continent that has previously provided only a fitful challenge.

Li won China's first singles title in 2004, became its first Grand Slam quarter-finalist in 2006 and its first top 10 player this year after reaching the Australian Open final. She now advances to world number four, equalling Kimiko Date-Krumm's Asian record.

In the men's game, great things are expected of Japan's Kei Nishikori, 21, Asia's hottest talent since Thailand's Paradorn Srichaphan broke the top 10 in 2003.

In golf, South Korea's Yang Yong-Eun re-wrote the record books in 2009, when he became Asia's first major-winner at the PGA Championship -- fending off a strong challenge from the part-Thai Tiger Woods.

The victory confirmed the growing stature of Asia's golfers, led by thick-set Korean K.J. Choi and featuring a burgeoning contingent of young talent including Japan's Ryo Ishikawa.

China dominated the 2008 Beijing Olympics to such an extent that their victory on the medals table was confirmed before the Games even finished, ending a 12-year reign by the United States.

Their final tally of 51 golds came despite the injury withdrawal of 110m hurdles superstar Liu Xiang, who scooped China's first Olympic track gold with a landmark win in Athens four years earlier.

In 2001, seven-foot (2.13 metres) Wang Zhizhi broke through a forest of red tape to join the Dallas Mavericks, becoming the US National Basketball Association's first Chinese player.

He was soon followed by Shanghai's towering, seven-foot-six-inches Yao Ming, whose signing by the Houston Rockets triggered a new wave of basketball fever across China.

South Korea's Park Ji-Sung has been horribly unlucky not to become the first Asian player to lift football's glittering European Cup, after being dropped for Manchester United's 2008 win and being on the losing side in 2009 and 2011.

But the hard-running midfielder, 30, has won over an army of fans in the English Premier League, putting him among the pick of Asian exports to European football.

Deadly free-kick taker Shunsuke Nakamura was the darling of Scotland's Celtic before departing in 2009, while Sun Jihai provided tenacious service during six years at Manchester City.

Nearly half of Japan's current national squad is based in Europe, including Inter Milan's Yuto Nagatomo, while German giants Bayern Munich are reportedly interested in signing teen sensation Takashi Usami.

But the crowning glory for Asian football remains South Korea's fairytale run to the 2002 World Cup semi-finals, beating Spain, Italy and Portugal along the way.

In badminton, dominant China provides two of the top five men's players and three of the women's top five, and it's a similar story in table tennis, where the giant nation has long set the standard.

Ding Junhui lit the touchpaper for a Chinese snooker explosion when he won the first of two UK Championships in 2005. In January, a TV audience of 100 million watched Ding beat Hong Kong's Marco Fu in the Masters' first all-Asian final.

And in cricket, India are not only the one-day world champions and top Test team - they have its most lucrative tournament in the Twenty20 Indian Premier League, giving its administrators a stranglehold on the sport.
AFP
 

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