BEIJING - Chinese fans offered sympathy to Li Na on Wednesday after the former French Open champion and number two seed was sensationally knocked out in the tournament's first round.
Li, the 2011 winner and reigning Australian Open champion, went down 7-5, 3-6, 6-1 to France's 103rd-ranked Kristina Mladenovic, her first opening-round defeat in eight visits.
Li is a sporting heroine in China but also a controversial figure, whose outbursts at journalists have at times earned her condemnation from official media and Internet users.
This time, though, while disappointed at her defeat, posters were generally sympathetic, blaming the pressure of expectations and the 32-year-old's age.
"I was at a loss last night after Li Na's unexpected defeat. Is this a signal that she is declining from her physical peak?" wrote one user on Sina Weibo, a Chinese equivalent of Twitter.
Another Weibo poster said: "Even if no one mentions it, the crown of a former French Open champion is on her head every time she steps onto Roland Garros. This is pressure." After her 2011 breakthrough at Roland Garros, the first major victory by an Asian national, Li failed to get beyond the fourth round of her next six Grand Slams.
At the time Li, whose stock has soared anew since winning the Australian Open, blamed a dizzying whirl of publicity engagements for causing her to lose focus.
Some web users encouraged Li, who clinched her second Grand Slam title in Australia in January, to bounce back from the embarrassment.
"Professional players have certain cycles of their own," said one. "People cannot judge them by the performance at one or two matches." Chinese media on Wednesday described Li's loss as "unbelievable" and "inexplicable", lamenting that the world number two's time at the top could be running out.
"To 32-year-old Li Na, nothing is more unfortunate than wasting opportunities and time," said the Beijing Youth Daily.
Asia's top men's player, ninth-seeded Kei Nishikori of Japan, also crashed out in the French Open's first round as he appeared hampered by a back injury.