Money trouble

How Li Na got rich, but started to play poor

Money trouble

Li: taken her eye off the ball?

An ‘embarrassment of riches’ is an idiom originating from 1726, and the title of a play by Léonor Jean Christine Soulas d’Allainval. It denotes overabundance, or too much of a good thing. And it’s a phrase that Li Na will have come to well understand recently.

While the term originated with a comedy, for China’s top tennis star, it is no laughing matter. She’s found it increasingly tough to cope with her own embarrassment of riches – a welter of lucrative endorsement deals. Local media are now blaming the commercial whirl for a plummet in the star’s form on the court.

Appropriately enough, given the French etymology of the phrase, Li’s issues began in Paris. In June she made sporting history when she became the first Chinese to win a tennis grand slam tournament. This success instantly transformed her into the country’s top athlete, and with it she became hot commercial property.

According to Xinmin Weekly, Li then signed deals with a host of sponsors, netting her more than $40 million. This included a contract with Rolex worth Rmb18 million, while her existing endorsements with Nike got renegotiated up to Rmb20 million.

At this month’s China Open, Li featured in a commercial for the US sportswear firm. She is seen at an airport immigration counter where she is asked “Where are you from?” and she replies “Stuttgart, Madrid, Rome, Paris and London!”

Then the official asks “Where are you going?” to which she responds “Toronto, Cincinatti, New York, Tokyo, Beijing, Istanbul!”

Finally there is the query “What are you going to do?” to which she smiles and says: “Play tennis!”

Unfortunately, she hasn’t been playing much decent tennis to speak of recently and crashed out of the China Open in the first round to 58th ranked Monica Niculescu.

In what Reuters termed a “nightmare defeat”, Li repeatedly dropped serve and went down to a crushing 6-4 6-0 loss before her home crowd.

Nor was this her first poor showing since Paris. In August she’d also exited the US Open in the first round, committing 54 unforced errors.

Before that she’d lost in the second round at Wimbledon to Sabine Lisicki, who’d qualified with a wild card. Sitting down before the sporting press after her China Open defeat, Li looked visibly crushed. “I have just lost all confidence,” the French Open champion conceded. “It was tough winning even one point.” In another interview she even compared her recent performances to excrement (although she used the more guttural expression that rhymes with ‘it’).

Xinmin Weekly says it knows why Li’s form has disappeared. “An unavoidable fact is that, one after another commercial activities and brand endorsements, have consumed too much of Li’s training time.”

The newspaper then quoted industry experts as saying players find it hard to cope with 6 or 7 sponsors, but Li’s now working with more than a dozen.

Turmoil in Li’s coaching affairs have not helped either. After exiting the US Open in August, she fired her coach Michael Mortensen, replacing him with her husband. Mortensen had lasted just four months in the role, despite being hired himself to replace her husband previously, whom she’d fired in May (at the time WiC wondered how the mood was at home, once he was given his marching orders).

In fact hubby Jiang Shan only lasted three months as her coach first time round – which surely begs the question why he got rehired?

Commitments relating to her sponsors may well have contributed to Li’s declining performances. But truth be told, her form has been erratic all year. As WiC pointed out in issue 107, she reached the final of the Australian Open in January, only to enter a losing streak, exiting the Dubai Tennis Championship in the first round.

Under Mortensen she briefly regained her stride, getting to the semi-finals of the Madrid Open and Internazionali BNL Italia; and then winning the singles in Paris. After that her form deserted her again.

Yesterday she did manage her first victory in two months – albeit not in ideal circumstances. She beat Maria Sharapova in Istanbul. But the Russian was handicapped with an ankle injury, and later announced she wouldn’t play again this season.

© ChinTell Ltd. All rights reserved.

Sponsored by HSBC.

The Week in China website and the weekly magazine publications are owned and maintained by ChinTell Limited, Hong Kong. Neither HSBC nor any member of the HSBC group of companies ("HSBC") endorses the contents and/or is involved in selecting, creating or editing the contents of the Week in China website or the Week in China magazine. The views expressed in these publications are solely the views of ChinTell Limited and do not necessarily reflect the views or investment ideas of HSBC. No responsibility will therefore be assumed by HSBC for the contents of these publications or for the errors or omissions therein.