Finally in the final

Why a tennis ‘rebel’ has become nation’s new role model

Finally in the final

Flying the flag: Li made history last weekend

“When your troops begin to lose it’s like a mountain falling down”. So goes a much-quoted Chinese proverb, one that Li Na may have pondered this week. It turns out that when things go wrong in tennis (just as in battle), it can happen so quickly that there often isn’t much you can do about it.

Li had just such an experience on Saturday. The metaphorical mountain was Belgium’s Kim Clijsters, who she was playing in the final of the Australian Open. It started well and Li had Chinese fans in Melbourne out of their seats by winning the first set, and going three-two up in the second.

Then Clijsters won six straight games to take the second set, and gain the initiative in the third.

It was too much for Li, who lost the final set 6-3. After the match the Chinese player joked it confirmed her view that matches “should be played over one set”.

Li may not have won, but having knocked out world number one Caroline Wozniacki in the semi-final, the 28 year-old had already achieved a victory of sorts, as the first Chinese player to get to a final of a tennis grand slam.

The impact of Li’s performance resonated throughout China. Millions of Chinese watched the final, and in doing so boosted the sport’s popularity – especially with the young.

But the nation’s commentators were also quick to draw some broader conclusions from her success. As we pointed out in WiC14, Li is regarded as something of a ‘rebel’ in Chinese sports circles (a prominent tattoo and selected piercings point to her non-conformist streak). But Li’s renegade reputation was also due to her determination to break away from the state’s sports administration – the powerful agency that converts promising children into Olympians.

Instead, she’s coached by her husband. (This has a financial upside. The state’s sports administration takes 60% of winnings. She now pays the government 12% instead, a big saving considering she won $1.1 million in Australia.)

The South China Morning Post agreed that Li’s decision to go it alone was significant. Li is a “woman who has openly bucked the state system and its conformity,” the newspaper wrote. “What sets Li apart is independence and outspokenness and that has got her to where she is now… In her own way she has shown the Communist Party that it need not fear greater individual freedoms.”

As a symbol of individualism, Li has become a new role model – respected local sports commentator Huang Jianxiang notes on his weibo (a Chinese Twitter equivalent) that her success is down to her “strong character”. Netease, a website, reckons Li’s risk-taking style of play also “subverts the conservative image of Chinese players”.

“Great Li,” wrote blogger Jinshu Shuiji, “great humour, great English, this outstanding woman is really our pride! ‘Queen Li’ enhances the image of Chinese players and she is China’s best business card.”

But the final did produce one sour note for the Wuhan-born star. As her game flagged in the second set, she became (understandably) agitated by shouts in Mandarin from the crowd (one told her to “kill” Clijsters). She even asked the umpire to silence her critics, saying “Can you tell the Chinese don’t teach me how to play tennis.”

She even blamed her over-enthusiastic fans for her loss of concentration. “They can talk, but not during the point,” she lamented.

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