Chinese officials sang the praises of rebel tennis star Li Na in spite of her three-set defeat in the final of the Australian Open at the hands of Belgian Kim Clijsters at the weekend.
The outspoken and colorful Li broke with six decades of Communist Party tradition when she left to work with her husband and coach outside the government-backed training regime in 2007.
Li, who became on Saturday the first Asian tennis player to enter a Grand Slam final, was lauded in official media as a "pioneer" and national sports heroine on a par with basketball star Yao Ming.
Chinese Tennis Association chief Sun Jinfang said Li had secured her position as one of the country's all-time sporting greats.
"There is always a pioneer pushing things forward in his or her time, and Li is a sporting pioneer of her time," Sun said.
"I think she has an international standing similar to Yao Ming or [hurdler] Liu Xiang. She has been undervalued a little bit due to the relatively low profile of tennis in China."
Li's runner-up status in the championship has left her ranked 7th in the world. She had sent first-ranking Caroline Wozniacki packing during the semi-finals.
Li's glory could boost tennis in China, which has traditionally channeled most of its energies into badminton and table tennis.
Out of a population of 1.3 billion, only around 12 million Chinese currently play tennis regularly, a recent survey has shown.
Challenge to the system
Li's defeat still won her front pages of top Chinese newspapers, along with an editorial in the official Communist Party mouthpiece, the People's Daily.
Li's continued blessing from the powers-that-be came after she challenged the entire Party-backed machine that trains young Chinese to become top-performing athletes.
The 28-year-old, whose rose tattoo has drawn much comment from China's gossip-ridden Internet, left the national sports system when she was denied permission to marry her coach, Jiang Shan.
Clijsters, who was defeated by Li earlier this month in the final of the Sydney International competition, said she was struck by the strength of support for Li during the final which she won 3-6, 6-3, 6-3 in Melbourne's Rod Laver Arena.
"I think it will open a lot of doors for tennis in that part of the world," the Belgian player told reporters.
Meanwhile, Women's Tennis Association (WTA) chief Stacey Allaster said Li's win would boost the popularity of the sport "exponentially" in China.
Chinese newspapers expressed disappointment with the result on Saturday, but said their star's best may be yet to come.
"Clijsters shatters Chinese dream" read a headline in the Shanghai Daily.
"Though frustrated, Li Na still has written a new page in Asian sports," state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) said on its website.
China's sports development programs came in for strong criticism from a former top official during the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
Government talent scouts hand-pick promising youngsters at an early age, taking them away from their families to a life of permanent training and discipline, according to Bao Tong, former aide to late disgraced premier Zhao Ziyang.
"China's athletes are chosen as young children ... and taken away from their families, from their schools, and totally cut off from normal social activities," Bao said, in an essay bitterly critical of the Communist Party's approach to sports.
"The door is closed, and they give up their entire youth and part of their childhoods for the sole aim of entering and winning competitions, an aim for which they are totally re-molded by the system," he wrote.
Bao said that while China has an unending supply of human talent, the system does little to encourage ordinary people to get fitter and healthier.
Written by Luisetta Mudie.