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Defeat fails to dim China pride in "Golden Flowers"

BEIJING (Reuters) - Double defeat for China’s Australian Open semi-finalists Li Na and Zheng Jie failed to stem an outpouring of national pride in the achievements of their “Golden Flowers” at Melbourne Park.

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The Chinese public can be unforgiving of failure, as the national soccer team knows all too well, but delight at having two players in the last four of a grand slam for the first time was the prevailing sentiment in the Chinese media on Friday.

The popular Beijing News tabloid led its sports pages with just two Chinese characters, “Tennis” and “Pride”, while China Sports Daily had “Li and Zheng make glorious history despite defeat”.

The defeats -- Li’s a tight 7-6 7-6 loss to Serena Williams, Zheng’s a 6-1 6-0 thrashing at the hands of Justine Henin -- were explained in a People’s Daily article headlined “Why they did not progress”.

The analysis highlighted Serena’s incredible grand slam pedigree and Henin’s power as the key factors, but ended on an upbeat note.

“This was a wonderful beginning for Chinese tennis, we are expecting a better future.”

Li and Zheng’s success was also seen as a vindication of the China Tennis Association (CTA)’s groundbreaking decision to allow China’s top four women tennis players to leave the state sports system and manage their own careers last year.

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CTA head Sun Jinfang received plaudits for the progressive move, known as the “flyaway” policy, which was opposed by some hardliners in the sports apparatus.

The CTA may have been forced into action to ameliorate unhappy players, but it is a example which will be increasingly relevant as Chinese athletes become more and more exposed to the market forces of professionalism in international sport. “Letting them go was correct,” said the Beijing News.

“The Golden Flowers have proved that self-management and professionalization are a must,” it went on. “As Madame Sun said ‘It was not what we wanted to do, it was what trends forced us to do.’

“The past year has shown us which system is more suitable for the current and future development.”

Sun, a product of the paternalistic state system and national hero herself as captain of a world champion volleyball team, continues to be reluctant to give younger, lower-ranked players their freedom.

The English language China Daily, in an opinion piece headlined “Victory in defeat”, lavished praise on her but begged to differ.

“Like raising children, you cannot keep them under your wing forever,” wrote sports editor Yu Yilei. “The best way to grow up is to give them their wings and let them fly.”

Additional reporting by Liu Zhen, Editing by Alastair Himmer