The tennis world was overturned Wednesday night when unheralded Chinese player Li Na upset Venus Williams in three sets in the Australian Open quarterfinals. The win marks a watershed moment for Chinese tennis; Li joins countrywomen Zheng Jie in the semifinals, and come Monday she will be the first Chinese player ever ranked in the top 10.
Dreams of an all-Chinese final are most likely premature, as both Li and Zheng are heavy underdogs in their semifinal matches against world No. 1 Serena Williams and former No. 1 Justine Henin. But the athletes dubbed "Golden Flowers" by Chinese media have already ignited a heated debate over the cause of their success. The question is whether China's omnipresent athletic system helped the pair more by its presence or by its absence.
- Hands-Off "Though Li and Zheng are both products of China's strictly regimented sports system, they have moved up the WTA rankings since being given unprecedented freedom a year or so ago to manage their own careers," writes Christian Science Monitor's Peter Ford. Ford compares this decision with China's policy on its male tennis players, who are all outside the top 100 and have constant state involvement in their careers. In contrast, Li and Zheng "can now choose their own schedules, coaches, and practice partners, and they can spend more time on the international circuit getting the exposure to top-level competition that they need."
- Hands-On "China's rise can partly be attributed to having a large population from which to pick the best athletic talent and a strong work ethic," argues Business Mirror's Dan Baynes, who attributes Li and Zheng's success to China's ability to sift through its massive population and find the best athletes. Supporting Baynes' contention is former No. 1 Tracy Austin: "'You work them through the system and see who comes out,' Austin said in an interview. 'That's really the best way because you need the talent and you need the mental toughness.'"