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'Novice' Li Na takes tough road to grand slam glory

In an age when rackets can be thrust Into children's hands before they can barely walk it is refreshIng to have a Grand Slam champion who has grown up knowIng there is more to life than backhands and forehands.

LI NA, who beat Francesca Schiavone 6-4, 7-6 to win the French Open, is 29-years-old but still regards herself as a tennis novice.

"European or American players grow up playing tennis from a very young age," Li said as she looked back on her career just hours after her triumph in Paris on Saturday night.

"Asian players are different. At 29 I may not be young any more, but I feel young because I haven't been on the tour for that many years."

Asia's first Grand Slam champion, who grew up in the city of Wuhan in Hubei province, did not pick up a tennis racket until she was nine but made quick progress. She was sent to the John Newcombe Tennis Ranch in Texas at 15 and won her first titles on the International Tennis Federation circuit at 17.

Three years later, however, Li gave up the sport. She wanted to develop her singles career, but the Chinese authorities insisted she concentrate on doubles, which they believed offered a more likely prospect of Olympic success.

At 20 Li enrolled at journalism school and didn't play tennis for two years.

Li's then boyfriend, Jiang Shan, who is now her husband and hitting partner, persuaded her in 2004 that she might regret not giving the sport another try.

Her wish to concentrate on singles was finally granted and within months she became the first Chinese to win a singles title on the main tour.

Having reached her first Grand Slam final in Melbourne in January, she played the best tennis of her life on Saturday.

Li said her husband's support had been crucial in calming her on the day of the final.

"I told him: 'i know I should try not to feel the pressure, but I'm still nervous'. He said: 'Listen, she's the defending champion. You're in your first Roland Garros final. What have you got to lose?'. Don't think too much about what it will be like after you've won or you've lost. It's just one match. Go out there and show the whole world that you can play good tennis'."

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