Within minutes of Li Na’s French Open victory yesterday, the first major title for a Chinese title player, journalists around the world speculated as to how much her success could spur the growth of Chinese tennis, and mused over whether she were eclipsing Yao Ming and Liu Xiang in popularity.
The title should be a boon for tennis in China, where it was already relatively popular and accessible. And it makes Li the most compelling currently active sportsperson in the country, especially after hurdler Liu Xiang came in second at the Prefontaine Classic and announced he won’t compete in Europe before world championships late this summer. But the most important legacy of her win might be captured by the message printed on the 30 special-edition T-shirts Nike made for her camp to wear during the tournament: “Zaojiu zji,” roughly translated as, “Create yourself.” Li — along with Zheng Jie, Yan Zi and Peng Shuai — is part of an experiment in self-determination unprecedented in the Chinese sports world.
Less than three years ago, the Chinese Tennis Association announced its “Fly Alone” program, giving the players the option to leave the national team to train on their own, set their schedules, choose their coaches, control their commercial activities and keep 88% of their winnings, instead of turning over 65% to the federation. Li had two strong seasons and then made a run to the final of the Australian Open this year. She lost to Kim Clijsters, but took advantage of her stock to sign major new endorsements — Li represents Nike, Haagen-Dazs, Rolex and SpiderTech.
Li’s victory at Roland Garros after just two seasons on her own validates the association’s decision to extend these women so much independence. Some tennis writers have attributed her win in part to the fact that she changed coaches between the Australian Open and the French Open, demoting her husband and hiring Denmark’s Michael Mortenson — not something she could have done three years ago.
In a post-match press conference, the Chinese Tennis Association chief deemed the reforms a success: “We took a lot of risks with this reform. When we let them fly, we didn’t know if they would succeed. That they have now succeeded, means our reform was correct,” said Sun Jinfang. “This reform will serve as a good example for reforms in other sports.”
China’s bureaucrats have demonstrated a fondness for the guinea pig approach to change. The country’s transition to a market economy began with reforms isolated to cities designated as “special economic zones,” before spreading to the rest of the country.
If similar changes are to come in other sports, it probably won’t be until after the 2012 Olympics in London—sports administration leaders are unlikely to veer from the cautious course before then. And the CTA’s reforms can’t be simply copied by the sports China seems most concerned about— team sports, whose competition format and business model differ greatly from tennis. But China’s much-maligned national men’s football team, and the mediocre play in its national basketball league, might benefit from policies that encourage athletes to get playing experience outside of the country.
In the post-match ceremony, Li thanked her sponsors, tournament directors, ball boys, linesmen, chair umpires, her training team, fans and a friend—notably making no mention of her country or the Chinese Tennis Association. But why should she have to thank them? She wore red and yellow on the dais and sang along as the Chinese national anthem was played and the flag was raised. Do people expect Roger Federer to thank Switzerland whenever he wins a major? Or the Williams sisters to thank America?
Li Na is the vanguard of a new breed of Chinese athlete. She is creating herself, following her own path and hoping to squeeze as many wins as she can out of her career, but she is also creating a legacy will last long past her retirement, and extend beyond her own sport.
Li Na image: Xinhua
Tags: French Open, Li Na, tennis