To understand the challenges in making a film about tennis, ask Paul Bettany and Kirsten Dunst, who starred in the 2004 comedy Wimbledon, a love story about two tennis pros. The film relied heavily on CGI for the sport’s scenes, although both actors endured more than six months of tennis training to help prepare for their roles.
“I don’t have the skills to put it [the ball] in the spot every time or anything like that, but I definitely would hit it for any close-up, because it’s really hard not to make contact and make those look believable… It was really hard to pretend,” Dunst confided in an interview, admitting she found the tennis scenes a challenge.
How, then, is Hong Kong filmmaker Peter Chan going to cast an actress in his new project: a biopic about Chinese tennis star Li Na?
The film is going to be based on Na’s autobiography, Li Na: My Life, which was published in China in 2012. “I am honoured to have this opportunity to tell my story through a movie. I’m also honoured to be able to work with Peter Chan, who is such a successful director,” says Li, who will be a consultant on the project. “In order to be the best tennis player I have made a lot of great sacrifices in life. I hope the film will inspire others to believe in themselves and follow their dreams.”
In China, where tennis is very much a minority sport, Li still stands out as a star. She was the first and only Asian tennis player – male or female – to win a Grand Slam title and she ranked as high as world number two during her career. Her reputation for being something of a rebel also broke new ground in the world of Chinese sports. She threw off the shackles of the state-run sports system in 2008, picking her own coach and keeping most of her earnings. In 2014, she announced her retirement from the pro circuit, citing injury.
Chan, who claims that he doesn’t follow tennis closely himself, says he is inspired by Li because she is one of the most iconic characters of China’s post-80s generation.
However, the director admits that casting the female lead has been difficult and that he is torn between choosing an established actress or a tennis player who can act. Filming is due to start in July, with Chan saying that Li has committed to training whoever is selected.
All the usual suspects are rumoured to be in the running for the role, with Fan Bingbing, Zhang Ziyi and Zhao Wei all said to have expressed an interest.
But as Quanzhou Evening News puts it: “It is going to be difficult to find a suitable actress. Most tennis players are physically strong and actresses shaped like bean sprouts just don’t seem appropriate.”
“First, in terms of appearance, the actress to play Li Na shouldn’t be too pretty. If they are too beautiful the story is just not believable. Moreover, Chan shouldn’t pick an actress that is too famous or too mainstream. That’s because in our mind, the image of Li Na is very clear and if suddenly Zhao Wei shows up, who is going to believe that she’s Li Na?” Jiang Nan City Daily also warned.
Hong Kong Economic Journal says casting the right man to play Li’s husband, Jiang Shan, is equally important.
“Jiang was a role model in how he tamed a tiger and withstood the emotional roller-coaster that accompanied her rise to world fame,” the newspaper has suggested. “Only a few saints with exceptionally high EQ (or a hearing problem) could do a better job than Jiang, as any married man can testify.”
Despite the challenges, Max Eisenbud, Li’s agent, is optimistic that the film will do well at the box office, when it is released next year. “Li Na is a special case. She is such a pioneer, like the Billie Jean King of China,” he says. “She has knocked down a lot of barriers… She is inspirational for young girls.”
With the French Open now in full swing, Chinese tennis fans are lamenting Li’s retirement once again. The country’s best hope to replace her, Peng Shuai, was forced to retire with a back injury while trailing 6-0, 2-0 in the first round. And lower-ranked players like Zhang Shuai and Zheng Saisai were soon knocked out in the first round of the competition too.
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