Li Na's breakthrough year: China's destiny fulfilled

    Story highlights

    • Li Na's French Open victory made 2011 a breakthrough year for both her and China
    • She is the first Chinese player ever to win a grand slam tennis title
    • Li's rise helped by 2008 Olympic Games that gave youngsters in China more freedom
    • Over 100 million fans cheered her to victory and she says life has changed since her win
    When Li Na clinched the French Open crown, willed on by 100 million Chinese fans, it fulfilled a moment of destiny for both player and country.
    In securing China's first major tennis title, the 29-year-old delivered the glory her homeland had been promising for years.
    With an explosion in the popularity of tennis in Asia over the past decade, Li cemented her place in the history books at Roland Garros on June 4.
    Reflecting on her breakthrough year, she told CNN's Open Court that on her first return home, the impact of her landmark triumph became immediately apparent.
    "Life has changed a lot. I knew after the French Open when I went back to China the fans would be crazy," she said.
    "I came back home and a lady (on the street) said, 'Li Na, I know who you are, I need a photograph with you, an autograph.' She spoke so loud and everyone heard it. More people were coming so me and my friend were full-power running to the car.
    "I said 'What happened? I just want a normal life.' "
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    If her Paris victory was a pivotal moment in her career, the 2008 Olympics in Beijing was equally important.
    China's hosting of the Games paved the way for a change in the country's approach to schooling talented youngsters.
    Where once tennis proteges had all been taught in a similar way by the same coaches, now they had more freedom to sculpt their own future.
    "Now everyone has personalized coaching," Bendou Zhang, a tennis journalist in China, told CNN.
    "You can choose which tournaments you play and which coach you work with -- I think it has been very good for her (Li Na)."
    After making the switch to tennis from her early years spent playing badminton, Li turned professional in 1999.
    But it was when she teamed up with Swedish coach Thomas Hogstedt that her game started to mold into one that would ultimately challenge those at the very top of the sport.
    "Thomas, he was very different to Chinese coaches," Li said. "He always gave me confidence. First time he was saying 'You can be in the top 20.' I said 'Are you joking?' because I didn't believe it -- I never had a coach say I can be top 20."
    Hogstedt knew right at the beginning of their partnership that Li was destined for the upper echelons of the game, provided she believed in herself.
    "She had very, very big potential," he told CNN. "She was strong, she had great technique but she didn't really have a mind how to play.
    "That's what I tried to help all China's players with, the mentality to believe you can beat the top 10 players -- they have weaknesses, and everything is possible."
    For most of her professional career, Li has been coached by her husband, though, ironically, she switched to Danish ex-pro Michael Mortensen for the four-month period that covered her French Open triumph.
    Despite their partnership yielding her first slam title, she rehired her husband in September after a form slump that included early exits at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.
    Zhang explained why the pair are such a good double act: "Jiang Shan is like the rubbish can. She needs a channel to make all the negative emotions go out and Jiang Shan does a very good job I think."
    Li, however, admits that their relationship is sometimes tricky.
    "Really, it's tough having a husband as a coach," she said. "Sometimes he was shouting against me and I was like, 'Hey, you're my husband, why are you shouting at me?' But I forgot he was my coach."
    Li enjoyed huge popularity in China even before her breakthrough moment in Paris. Zhang puts that down to her open approach.
    "I think Chinese people like her because she's different," he said. "She's not very Chinese, she's very international. She talks and communicates with people in a kind of Western way."
    She is even seen as some kind of rebel within her own country, but that is not an assessment that sits comfortably with Li.
    "Definitely not. I never thought I was special. I'm just a tennis player, I do my job. I don't know why people say that."