Zheng Qinwen was going through her press rounds last week following a third-round win over Wang Yafan when a funny thing happened. Actually, her childhood idol, Li Na, happened -- interrupting an English television interview.

China’s most accomplished player whacked the backside of China’s current best, who was simultaneously stunned and delighted, and the two shared a hug and a few words. It was their first formal meeting, tying a bright, red bow on the great gifts Li brought to Chinese tennis.

Surprise! Zheng Qinwen meets Li Na after thrilling Australian Open win

“That was feeling really special for me,” Zheng told reporters. “I feel she’s much more beautiful than when I saw her on TV before. She said to me, 'Don’t think too much, just keep simple.’ I think that’s right now what I need to do.”

A decade ago, Li put the finishing flourish on a Hall of Fame career with a victory here at the Australian Open, her second in a major after winning three years earlier at Roland Garros. Ten years and two days following that unprecedented win Down Under, China had another woman in the final.

On Saturday, Zheng fell to Aryna Sabalenka 6-3, 6-2.

“She’s a really aggressive player,” Zheng said afterward. “If you let a chance go, it will happen like today.”

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The chance she was talking about came with Sabalenka serving in the third game of the match. Up 2-0, Zheng won the first three points. Sabalenka countered by winning five straight and escaped with a 3-0 lead -- a margin she maintained the rest of the way.

“That little moment,” Zheng said, “makes the match so different.”

At 21 years old, Zheng was the China’s youngest women’s player to reach a Grand Slam final. Li was 28 when she broke through at the 2011 Australian Open.

“She’s the first one who won the Slams,” Zheng said. “I mean, that’s unbelievable for Asian woman in that moment. Then she gives a lot of hope in that moment [for] young kids [like] me. That’s my dream since I was a kid.”

Zheng’s matches drew millions of viewers in China, mirroring the unprecedented commotion caused by Li. This was by no means a coincidence. It’s a direct result of cause and effect.

The Li Na Effect.

A really good position

Li finished her career with a record of 503-188 (.728), nine titles, a No.2 ranking in 2014 and more than $16 million in prize money. Li was the first player of either gender from Asia to be ranked among the Top 10 and win a major. Those victories helped to spark a remarkable movement back home that can be seen in today’s Hologic WTA Tour Top 100 rankings:

No.15 Zheng (21 years old), No.32 Zhu Lin (29), No.36 Wang Xinyu (22), No.60 Wang Xiyu (22), No.61 Yuan Yue (25), No.87 Bai Zhuoxuan (21), No.84 Wang Yafan (29).

That’s seven players -- four of them aged 22 or less. In 2014, there were six Chinese women in the Top 100, but they were, on average, considerably older with only two inside the Top 50 and three in the Top 90.

“I think generally, obviously China has really good tennis players in women and men,” Zheng said. “All of us are trying to develop and improve as best as we can. Some of us are young. We are trying to explore how is our game style. Right now, we are in a really good position for China tennis.”

Since the modern game of tennis was introduced in the late 19th century, it was dominated by Great Britain, Australia and the United States for many decades. Gradually, as the world has grown smaller, success has come to the European nations and, recently, nations without a long tennis history, like Japan and Tunisia -- and China.

The United States, with 16 women, has the most in today’s Top 100, followed by the Czech Republic with nine. China’s next with seven -- a sign that the massive country of nearly 1.4 billion is leveraging its many resources and starting to take professional tennis seriously.

Before Li, basketball, soccer, table tennis and badminton were the top sports, with tennis almost an afterthought. But an International Tennis Federation study five years after her win in Melbourne calculated that 23 percent of the sport’s participants come from China -- some 20 million.

Zheng’s success will create another spike in interest.

Good memories

Earlier this week, when the Australian Open introduced its legends lineup, Li spoke of her fondest memories.

“Ten years, yeah, still proud of myself. Is good for her, for China tennis. I’m happy to see a lot of young players grow up. I think it’s a big chance for [Zheng] for this year.”

And that was before Zheng won her next three matches.

Li was 29 when she arrived at Roland Garros in 2011, with a single Grand Slam final, earlier that year in Melbourne, to her credit. She blew through the field, defeating four present or future Grand Slam champions in the process -- Petra Kvitova, Victoria Azarenka, Maria Sharapova and, in the final, Francesca Schiavone. 

It was a singular achievement, but even more impressive considering the obstacles in her path. She had a running battle with the Chinese national team and the state-run sports system, breaking off on her own in 2008, in a move the Chinese media called “Fly Solo.” In exchange for having the freedom to hire the coaching team and keep a larger portion of her winnings, Li and her husband/coach Jiang Shan were responsible for all their expenses, with no financial aid from the state.

Three years later, one month shy of her 32nd birthday, she was the fourth seed at the 2014 Australian Open, behind Serena Williams, Azarenka and Sharapova. After losing to Kim Clijsters in the 2011 final and Azarenka in the 2013 final (both in three sets), she said she was looking to take “the next step.”

In the third round, she dropped the first set to Lucie Safarova and saved a match point in the second before prevailing in three. Straight-set victories over Ekaterina Makarova, Flavia Pennetta and Eugenie Bouchard landed her in a third Australian Open final in four years.

Facing Dominika Cibulkova, Li opened with 25 unforced errors in the first set but escaped in a tiebreak. The final score, 7-6 (3), 6-0, was a testament to Li’s powers of perseverance. She was the oldest champion in Melbourne Park in more than 40 years.

A lucky find

Her speech at the trophy ceremony might have been more memorable than her on-court win. She thanked her agent, Max Eisenbud, for making her rich, her coach, Carlos Rodriguez, for his support before addressing her husband.

“You are famous in China,” she said. “So thanks for him [giving] up everything, just traveling with me to be my hitting partner, fix the drink and fix the racquet so, he do a lot of job. So, thanks a lot. You are a nice guy. And …

“And -- also you’re so lucky [to] find me!”

So, too, was the world at large. Lucky to find Li Na, the 7-year-old Chinese girl who chose tennis over badminton. Growing up in Wuhan, Hubei Province in Central China, Zheng’s favorite player was Roger Federer. She loved watching Serena William and Li Na, too. She made the switch from table tennis to tennis.

During her run here, a telling photo surfaced on Chinese social media. On the big screen, Li Na clutches the gargantuan 2014 Australian Open trophy. Among the more than 100 million viewers in China, a dozen young tennis players -- phones and snacks in hand -- watch with giddy smiles on their faces. Zheng, mouth wide open in amazement, is 11 years old.

Four years later, Zheng was the No.14 seed in the 2018 US Open junior girls’ tournament. She lost in the third round to Emma Raducanu, but compatriot Wang Xiyu was the eventual winner. Talking about the influence of Li, Zheng was quoted in the New York Times.

“She’s an amazing player for me,” she said. “She changed tennis in China. Most people started tennis because Li Na was so good.

“When you are young, and you see something you like, there is no reason. You just like it. And I go for it.”

And so she did.

In the final, there were times when Zheng looked overwhelmed. She actually stroked more winners, but six double faults ultimately cost her. Still, at 21, she’ll have many more opportunities to replicate Li’s sweeping accomplishments.

“I think I can learn more with the loss today,” Zheng told reporters, “and then I just hope next time I can come back as a better tennis player.”