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China's progress could be sign of glory to come

By Emily Chang, CNN
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China's triumph in Australia
  • Zheng Jie and Li Na lost in their final-four clashes at the Australian Open in Melbourne
  • Tennis is a major growth sport in China, according to the WTA
  • Success of Li and Zheng could be sign of things to come, as more talent is developed
  • Australian Open
  • China

Beijing, China (CNN) -- For the first time this week two Chinese women made it to the final four of a grand slam tennis tournament. And although neither could advance to the final of the Australian Open, the progress of Zheng Jie and Li Na wowed audiences internationally and back home in China.

One of Li's new fans is reigning champion Serena Williams it seems, who complimented her opponent's determination after her semifinal win.

"I had so many match points, and I blew it. I knew I couldn't mess up my serve because she never gives up," Williams said.

Li Na's exploits in Oz means she will be ranked among the top 10 women tennis players in the world, when the Women's Tennis Association (WTA) publishes its list next Monday, a mark that could be significant.

We've seen the China Open grow from a small event to one of the biggest we have
--WTA's Kirsten Fisher

"It's the first time that a Chinese woman or any Chinese player, male or female, has been in the top 10, so it's a huge stepping point, just in terms of how people perceive you," said Kirsten Fisher, vice president of the WTA's Asia Pacific sales and marketing division.

The progress of Zheng in Melbourne meant the 26-year-old was unable to attend a competition held in her name back in Beijing, where The Broadwell Tennis Club hosted the "Zheng Jie Cup."

Though the star name and sponsor was unable to be there in person, her influence was felt among the participants.

"For China to make it to the quarter and semi finals is not easy," eight-year-old Xu Bochen boasted, wielding a racket and tennis ball. "One day I want to be the number one in the world from China!" he added.

There is no doubt the profile of the sport is increasing across the country. "The interest has been growing and growing," Fisher says.

"We've seen the China Open grow from a small event to one of the biggest we have on the Tour and there are millions of people watching on TV."

According to the WTA, tennis is the third most-watched sport in China behind basketball and football.

"Like basketball, it doesn't require a lot of equipment," Fisher says. "Just some balls and a tennis racket. There is more and more access to tennis, more tennis courts being built and people see it as something they want to try."

Time may yet show the progress of Li and Zheng to be only the opening chapter in the story of the rise of a tennis superpower.