BEIJING, Jan 26 (Reuters) - Chinese fans were disappointed but still proud on Saturday after home-grown tennis heroine Li Na lost out once again on the Australian Open crown, saying she continued to be an inspiration for China.
Li, affectionately known as "Big Sister Na" and "Golden Flower" in China, is seen by many Chinese as a role model, with her steely determination, broad smile and English language skills emblematic of a confident and rising country.
China has a history of placing enormous expectations on athletes who have gained international acclaim and each live broadcast is viewed as a barometer of global standing or national pride.
In 2008, when defending champion Liu Xiang was forced to drop out of the 110 metres hurdles at the Beijing Olympics due to an injury, his withdrawal was met with tears, anger and accusations that the athlete had let down the nation.
"Actually, I'm not as upset as you might think by the fact that she lost this match. I think she has already achieved a lot," said Li Shuang, who watched Li's match at a Beijing sports club with other fans.
"You need to look at how much she has improved, and also how many people she has inspired," he added. "Now a lot of kids are learning to play tennis. It's definitely because of her."
Victoria Azarenka retained her Australian Open title with a tense 4-6 6-4 6-3 victory over Li, who suffered a sickening ankle injury in the second set and hit her head in the third when she twisted the joint for a second time.
Li had one hand on the Australian trophy in the 2011 final after taking the first set against Belgian Kim Clijsters, but crumbled under the pressure and took out her frustrations on rowdy Chinese spectators in the stands.
Months after her 2011 disappointment, Li captured her sole grand-slam title at the French Open, but had since spent a frustrating period failing to get past the fourth round at the majors until her surprising resurgence at Melbourne Park this week.
Li's progress has been followed closely in China, and the final was once again shown live on state television.
The official news agency Xinhua, which led their main web page with the story, put down her lack of success to a "sprained ankle", and noted that she was the clear crowd favourite.
Nevertheless, fans watching the game back home were reluctant to make excuses for her, saying the game was still a good one to watch.
"She played her game to the best of her ability," said Li Guowei, 48, who has been following the sport for more than 20 years.
"When she fell, things changed for her and she started losing. I think she is a hard person to read, but my guess is that the fall affected her mentally as well as physically." (Reporting by Beijng newsroom and Reuters Television; Writing by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Clare Fallon)