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enjoys Li's historic success in breakthrough year

Written by: Staff

BEIJING, July 4 (Reuters) The historic progress of China's Li Na at Wimbledon was a rare moment of local success to cheer for a country still held in thrall by soccer's World Cup.

The 24-year-old came back to beat Czech teenager Nicole Vaidisova 4-6 6-1 6-3 yesterday and become the first Chinese to reach the quarter-finals of a grand slam tournament.

''Li Na's great achievement at Wimbledon is a great stimulus to the whole sports community in China,'' said Li Youlin, vice president of the Chinese Tennis Association (CTA).

''China's Li, the final 8!'' Beijing News trumpeted, albeit on the inside pages of a sport section still dominated by soccer news from Germany.

''Li Na breaks into Wimbledon's top 8, raising hopes she can snatch the title,'' read the headline in the Dongfang Daily.

Form suggests Li Na's run will come to an end in her next match against Belgian second seed Kim Clijsters, on Centre Court today, but that will not take the gloss off a breakthrough year for Chinese women's tennis.

Zheng Jie and Yan Zi became the country's first grand slam champions after winning the doubles title at the Australian Open in January and have reached the last 16 at Wimbledon.

In May, Li withdrew injured from the first all-Chinese final on the WTA tour leaving compatriot Zheng to claim the Estoril title.

ELITE PLAYERS Li then became the first Chinese to breach the world top 30 in the singles rankings and was the first player from her country to be seeded in the singles draw at a grand slam event when she was ranked 27th for Wimbledon.

Victory over fifth seed and former U.S. Open champion Svetlana Kuznetzova made her the first Chinese to make the fourth round at Wimbledon and set up her tie with French Open semi-finalist Vaidisova.

Li Na's progress is all the more remarkable given it is her first time playing singles on the Wimbledon grass.

''The sport of tennis has not been developed for long in China, and the best training for us is to keep playing in WTA events and grand slams,'' China's head coach Jiang Hongwei told state news agency Xinhua.

''Only by playing the elite players of the world can Chinese players gradually close the gap.'' They will get that chance when China play for a place in the Fed Cup World Group for the first time in a qualifier against Germany in Beijing next week.

With all eyes still firmly on success at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, however, the CTA are still emphasising learning rather than winning.

''The Fed Cup match against Germany provides a great chance for these great women players to show their skills and is also a golden chance for them to learn,'' Li Youlin told a news conference.

''Although China's women players have enjoyed some success in the international arena, there is still a gap to the top players so there is still a long way for the Chinese to go.'' REUTERS PM BST0912

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