40 LOVE Moments: Li & Sun In Athens
Published September 18, 2013 12:01
ATHENS, Greece - Though there had been some strong Chinese players on the tour before, it was at the Athens Olympics in 2004 when China truly burst into prominence in the tennis world, as Li Ting and Sun Tiantian made a shock run to the gold medal in doubles - a snowball that started an avalanche.
It's not like Li and Sun were anonymous at the time or anything - they had three WTA doubles titles together from 2003, at Vienna, Québec City and Pattaya City - and they were the No.8 seeds, after all. But with some phenomenal teams in the draw, calling them a longshot would be an understatement.
That started right in the first round as they squared off against Chanda Rubin and Venus Williams, both extremely accomplished singles players and strong doubles players too, both with Grand Slam doubles titles to their name - Rubin one, Williams six. But Li and Sun lifted their games up when it mattered most, squeaking out a tight first set and putting the all-star American pair away in three, 75 16 63.
One by one - or two by two - the No.8-seeded Chinese pair knocked team after team out in the Greek capital, following up their win over Rubin and Williams with a 61 76(1) win over Silvia Farina Elia and Francesca Schiavone, then a 63 62 drubbing of No.4 seeds Alicia Molik and Rennae Stubbs, and then a 62 26 97 win over No.7 seeds Paola Suárez and Patricia Tarabini, which left Suárez very impressed.
"They are young and have a very bright future," the eight-time Grand Slam doubles champion and former World No.1 doubles player said. "They played better at the important points in the match today."
There was no drama at all in the final - Li and Sun saved their best for the gold medal match, never looking in trouble against No.2 seeds Conchita Martínez and Virginia Ruano Pascual. They won, 63 63.
"We never thought about this before the Olympics, even before this match," Li said after the final.
"We feel so happy to win the gold," Sun said. "Olympic gold means more to us than the Grand Slams."
Li and Sun would win five more WTA doubles titles together, bringing their career haul to nine.
Both have since retired - Li last played in 2007, Sun in 2009 - but what the pair did in Athens that summer was a springboard for what is now one of the powerhouses of women's tennis, with breakthroughs coming fast and furious after that run. In fact about six weeks later a certain 22-year-old from Wuhan became the first Chinese to win a WTA title, at the inaugural edition of Guangzhou.
The rest is history.