Li Na: Breathing Life Into Tennis and China's Image

Li Na: Breathing Life Into Tennis and China's Image


Tennis world number two Li Na lost last week at the BNP Paribas Open semifinal against Flavia Pennetta in Indian Wells, California. Despite defeating her in the quarterfinals at this year’s Australia Open grand slam event, she couldn’t pull through this time around. The nifty Italian’s counterpunch helped her with the upset, defeating the 31 year old in two sets, 7-6 (5) 6-3.

While Pennetta would advance to the finals and eventually win the biggest tournament of her career (defeating the number 3 seed, Agnieszka Radwanska in the final), Li missed the opportunity to capitalize on her first semifinal at the tournament since 2007. Still, she managed to have better results than in her previous bout at Doha.

You can tell she’s slowly but surely getting back on track and she senses an opportunity. She will attempt to make it deep at the Sony Open in Miami this week, trying to end Serena Williams’ home-court advantage and extraordinary reign.

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The 31-year old Wuhan native who is known for her flat, crunching groundstrokes, as well as her wacky, wise-cracking post-match interview antics (see here and here), has arguably done more for the women’s tennis game than any other active player around.

Since becoming Asia’s first grand slam champion, she’s brought much-needed attention to the game and has inspired a young generation of aspiring athletes to pursue it. The WTA circuit now astoundingly holds five WTA-level tournaments in China: Beijing, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Hong Kong, and in Li’s hometown of Wuhan. Later this year in October, the WTA will hold their first tournament ever in Tianjin. And that’s not all: the island country of Singapore will also host the end-of-the-year championships. Without Li Na’s superb talent and success, the WTA’s push into the heart of Asia might otherwise not have come to fruition—at least not yet.

That’s not to say other women haven’t had some success. Shuai Peng and Su-Wei Hsieh of Taiwan are the highest-ranking doubles players with an impressive record of 11-0 in finals. They’ve won the WTA championships in Istanbul and the prestigious Wimbledon, as well as the most recent tournament at the BNP Paribas Open. Shuai has had greater success of the two in singles play (ranked 44), but has her nerves get to her in the big moments. There are 4 women in the top 100 from Greater China, and only 1 in the top 100 on the men’s side. For now, Li’s success will hopefully help unearth up-and-coming talent from both the men and women’s game.

But many are still wondering if the Chinese are capable of producing a Grand Slam winner who abides by the state-run sports system. Under the bureaucratic system, athletes are groomed at an early age with little personal freedom, and undergo a rigid structure all in the pursuit of glory for the motherland. Li’s slap in the face by her coach after only winning bronze in mixed doubles at China’s 2001 national games offer us an insight into the discipline demanded by athletes. Unable to keep her prize earnings, or pursue romantic relationships, it might be of little surprise that Li decided to leave and do it her own way.

After her break in 2008, her career really took off and came through with a breakout win at Roland Garros in 2011. Her historic win was met with both praise and harsh criticism. She would bring pride and joy as the first Chinese woman to ever secure a victory in a grand slam event. But given her independence, and her failure to praise China in her success, the government felt as though it had lost face. After her win at Melbourne in January, securing her second grand slam victory, the Hubei government offered her a check worth 800,000 Yuan, which she unenthusiastically accepted. Since she once again didn’t thank her home, the government had decided to act and thank itself on her behalf.

Although Li plays for herself, she still has to hand over part of her earnings to sports officials. Government meddling has loosened a little on athletes’ lives, but there is still strong financial oversight and control. Yao Ming, who gave nearly 10% of his NBA earnings to the government, has recently spoken up and has urged decentralizing the sports sector. Jie Zheng, who left the system in 2009, has also said how she prefers the self-management—and yes, enjoys playing for herself.

Are athletes symbols of their nations or are their efforts personal? And are players more likely to see success if they are able to choose their own paths? As China continues to transform and interact with the market economy, attitudes too will change regarding how Chinese citizens respond to those questions. With her sort of personality, Li is at the center of that very conversation.

While she’s been weary to speak out against the system, obfuscating when asked how it’s affected her gameplay, her career winnings suggest that personal decision-making (particularly with her new coach Carlos Rodriguez) has helped her. And other athletes are following suit. Though I’m not sure the sports system will be phased out anytime soon, Li’s continual triumph is a reminder that self-cultivation is a valuable asset.

Praise or condemn her, Li Na is the best sports star and soft power string from the mainland, and perhaps the most important player in the game today. I know she may not always be in the best mood, and her poor performances can sometimes carry over into the interview room. She’d rather spend her time quietly with family than at the annual Spring Festival Gala. And she doesn’t give thanks to her homeland in the big events. She’s a flawed, breathing, and might I add extraordinary human with great resilience and willpower. She also makes tennis a lot of fun. That, I’d argue, does more for China’s image than the incessant need for patriotic glory.

So as she takes the court this week, let’s raucously salute her for all that she does and continues to do for herself, the game, and inevitably, for China.

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