Serving the people

Why Li Na’s Grand Slam victory is hugely significant for China

Serving the people

She loves Paris: Li Na pictured with the French Open trophy

It’s a measure of the significance of Li Na’s victory in Paris that she not only made it onto the front page of the People’s Daily, but was pictured within a red border and placed on the top right hand corner. Usually that spot is reserved for news about President Hu Jintao.

Luckily for Li Na, quipped one blogger, Hu decided to stay in on Saturday rather than conduct any official business – thereby freeing up the space.

Jokes aside, the decision to honour the tennis star with pride of place reflects China’s collective pleasure in her achievement.

Last weekend the 29 year-old became the first ever Chinese player to win a tennis Grand Slam, when she triumphed two sets to love in the final of the French Open – defeating the Italian holder Francesca Schiavone.

The Shanghai Daily then ran the headline “Li Na makes history in Paris”; and unquestionably the win represents the most significant sporting achievement for China since Liu Xiang won gold in the 110 metres hurdles at the Athens Olympics.

Xinhua News Agency commented that Li Na has now trumped even Liu and basketballer Yao Ming in China’s sporting pantheon. The People’s Daily called her an “Asian legend”.

Over 116 million Chinese are reckoned to have watched Li’s win on TV, according to Chengdu Business Daily, and 24 hours after her victory the number of her blog ‘followers’ on Sina Weibo surged from 1.6 million to 2.2 million.

Not surprisingly, it will be a lucrative triumph. Including the prize money she won on the day (€1.2 million) Wen Wei Po reckons the victory will see Li’s earning power rise by Rmb200 million ($30.8 million) – thanks to foreign and Chinese brands seeking her endorsement. Nanjing Modern Express says only a year ago the Wuhan-born player’s income would have been less than Rmb5 million.

It wasn’t Li’s first shot at the limelight: she had also appeared in the final of the Australian Open earlier this year, but was defeated by Kim Clijsters in a nervy affair. She even lost her temper with rowdy Chinese fans in the crowd. This time round she was calmness personified, with the Global Times praising her “Chinese fighting spirit”.

“She has changed the tennis world map,” reckons Chengdu Business Daily.

Other commentators were quick to agree. “This win is truly a breakthrough in a sport that has been dominated mainly by players from Europe, Australia and America,” commented Sun Jinfang, the head of China’s tennis federation. (Subtext: Li’s title offers empirical evidence that sportspersons of Chinese ethnicity can compete and win too).

It’s not the first time such sentiment has come to the fore: Liu said of his hurdling gold that it proved “the yellow man can sprint too” (a statement that says something about China’s curious blend of inferiority complex and sense of superiority.

No surprise then that Li’s victory is being interpreted as having a broader significance too: Xinhua says her achievement “reflects China’s new dynamism”, for example.

Li’s success was significant in other ways too. As WiC reported in issue 107, it vindicates some of the tough decisions she has taken recently. In April she sacked her coach – a tougher call than you might imagine, given he was also her husband. Li switched to European coach Michael Mortensen instead, when her form dropped under her husband’s regimen.

Likewise significant: Li has a reputation as a rebel, having broken away from China’s monolithic sports administration in 2008 to manage her own career (some years ago the head of the state sports body lambasted Li in the China Youth Daily for “low ethical thinking, low morality and lack of a sense of responsibility”). That was a bold move but one that has been proven right at Roland Garros. Indeed, for many Chinese Li is more than just a sports star: she offers a welcome example of an individual’s triumph over an overbearing system.

Li’s win should also provide a boost for tennis as a sport in China. “It is a massive source of pride for all the Asians and it can serve as a great milestone for the development of Chinese tennis,” Sun said after watching Li. Yahoo Sports agrees.“The victory should help ignite a tennis revolution in the country of 1.3 billion and could prove to be a critical boon for a sport badly in need of new markets and sponsors,” it predicts.

Tennis is far less popular in China than team sports like basketball and football. However, many parents and youngsters may now be inspired by Li’s example to hit the courts. The law of big numbers suggests that (if they do so) Li won’t be the last Chinese to win a Grand Slam.

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