Verbal volley

Second Grand Slam for Li Na as she wins Australian Open


Li takes her trophy to the beach

“In victory: magnanimity” Winston Churchill once urged. But Li Na took a different approach after she became the first Asian woman to win the Australian Open on Saturday. For her, it was more a case of ‘in victory: hilarity’.

Indeed, Melbourne’s Herald Sun was soon reporting that the tennis star had given the “best Australian Open victory speech ever”.

Li’s directness was soon drawing chuckles from the Melbourne crowd. For example, after she collected the tournament’s A$2.65 million ($2.31 million) winning cheque, Li grabbed the mike and smiled at the players’ box, saying: “Max, [my] agent, make me rich, thanks a lot.”

Boasting about one’s wealth isn’t exactly in fashion these days, but Li pulled it off with aplomb, partly because she was speaking in a second language but also because the sentiment was so jarringly honest (and wholly free of the standard puff associated with acceptance speeches nowadays).

Then it was the turn of Li’s spouse Jiang Shan to get some barbed praise: “Now, of course, my husband you are famous in China. Thanks to him for everything – travelling with me as my hitting partner, fixing my drinks, fix my racquet.

“So thanks a lot – you’re a nice guy… Also you’re so lucky.”

The audience didn’t quite know what to make of it. In her candour, Li sounded both affectionate and a tad belittling. Again, not what a PR consultant would have scripted. But Jiang just laughed, most likely because he knows better than anyone that Li has a maverick streak.

Xinmin Evening News reports that it’s not the first time that Li “has ridiculed her husband”. At a previous Australian Open she blamed a poor performance on his snoring the night before; and at a tournament in Dubai she could be heard scolding him in their shared Wuhan dialect.

As we reported in issue 107, Li even sacked him as her coach in 2011, when she felt he wasn’t up to the job.

But for many netizens, the 31 year-old’s playful tone struck a chord. One wrote on weibo that Li was different to most of her compatriots, who still feel bound by social traditions that discourage public shows of emotion. “Feelings need to be expressed. She does that which most Chinese people cannot do,” the netizen congratulated.

Once the ceremony was over, Li had warmer words for her partner. According to Western China Metropolis Daily, she said the tournament win was his anniversary present (they celebrated eight years as husband and wife on January 27, two days after the final).

Certainly, her victory over Slovakia’s Dominika Cibulkova was emphatic (Li won in straight sets, taking the second 6-0). It was also another landmark moment for Chinese tennis, proving that Li’s victory in the 2011 French Open was no fluke (or as ESPN put it, that she’s “no longer a one-hit wonder”).

It also showed Li’s tenacity: this was the third time she’d appeared in the Aussie Open final, losing twice before. The victory also means that she’s the oldest woman to win the tournament, which now ranks her third in the world, only 11 points behind Victoria Azarenka.

That’s the highest ranking an Asian player has ever achieved, and Li says she has the “hunger” to become world number one. To achieve it she would have to dislodge Serena Williams, the American champion who has beaten her nine times in a row. Still, Li told her fans she thinks she can win another Grand Slam and is targeting the US Open in the summer.

Sina Sports says Li’s second Grand Slam win “undoubtedly” makes her the number one star in Asian sports. But her nationality is crucial too, at least in commercial terms, says the New York Times (if she hailed from Chile or Uruguay brands would be a lot less enthused, the newspaper suggests). Almost 50 million CCTV viewers watched the game last Saturday and Modern Express reports that Li now endorses 13 products (a Rolex ad she featured in was hard to miss in the newspapers this week). That means that Li has now surpassed basketballer Yao Ming and gold-medal hurdler Liu Xiang, who both endorsed 12 brands at their peak.

Further, Modern Express calculates that Li’s endorsement contracts and prize money now add up to Rmb300 million ($49.5 million). No wonder she gave those effusive thanks to Max Eisenbud, her agent. And no wonder her husband grins and bears the odd moment of emasculation too…

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