BEIJING, April 24, 2008 (AFP)
China are planning to ride the wave of Olympic sporting fever and become the first Asian nation to reach the final of the Fed Cup this weekend, but five-times champions Spain stand in their way.
A passionate home crowd will urge on the home side at the Beijing International Tennis Centre during the tie, which starts Saturday and ends Sunday.
China are making their first semi-final appearance after sealing a dramatic 3-2 first-round victory in February over two-times champions France, who fought back from 2-0 down to level the tie but were unable to close the match.
The home side, who reached the World Group for the first time last year, where they were hammered 5-0 by Italy in the first round, are the first Asian nation to reach the last four since Japan in 1996.
But China's hopes have been hit by an injury to Asia's top-ranked player Li Na, who boasts a 24-4 Fed Cup singles record.
Chinese state media reported earlier this month that Li, ranked 35, would be sidelined for several weeks due to a right knee injury.
"The injury won't hamper her participation in the Beijing Games in August, but I think we should take it seriously," the China Daily quoted China Tennis Association vice-director Gao Shenyang as saying.
In her absence the team will be led by Peng Shuai, ranked 68, who has a 7-1 singles record, along with Zheng Jie, Yan Zi and Sun Tiantian.
But standing in their way are tennis powerhouse Spain, who beat last year's runners-up Italy 3-2 in Naples in the first round after romping to a 3-0 lead.
Spain's talent on show this weekend includes 76th-ranked Nuria Llagostera Vives, Carla Suarez-Navarro, Maria-Jose Martinez Sanchez and Arantxa Parra-Santonja.
Their incentive is to put Spain in the final for the first time since 2002. All of its previous successes came in the 1990's, including three titles in a row from 1993-95.
The teams' only previous Fed Cup meeting was in a 1984 World Group consolation round clash in Brazil, which China won 2-1.
With excitement mounting ahead of the Olympics in August, tennis is looking to make the most of the showcase tie.
"Tennis was a minority sport in China before the 2004 Athens Olympics, but all that has changed now," an official from the China Tennis Association said.
The doubles gold won there by Li Ting and Sun Tiantian not only shocked the tennis world but also the Chinese public, and the pair became overnight superstars.
The tennis boom in the country that followed means there are an estimated three million people now playing regularly.
Whoever wins the Beijing clash, played on indoor hard courts, will meet the victors from the Moscow match-up this weekend between Russia and the United States, who have won 20 titles between them.
The Chinese team have made the most of home-court advantage so far, but they would have to give that up if they played Russia.
If their final opponents are 17-times winners the United States, it would be played on Chinese soil.



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