Li Na changed Chinese sports history this weekend at the French Open, and she may have changed international tennis forever.
Li became the first Chinese winner of a Grand Slam title by overcoming defending champion Francesca Schiavone of Italy, 6-4, 7-6 (7-0) two days ago. The 29-year-old, who retired earlier in her career, was in her second straight major final, after losing to Kim Clijsters of Belgium at the Australian Open.
“Li Na is a very good role model for young people in China and they can learn from her persistent pursuit of her dreams regardless whatever hardships she is facing,” said Kathy Lee, a 43-year-old interpreter in Beijing who’s a fan of Switzerland’s Roger Federer. “I am so proud of being Chinese and witnessing our country to get stronger and stronger on all fronts.”
While Chinese women had won Olympic gold medals and Grand Slam titles in doubles, individual bests at the majors had been missing until last weekend. Li’s victory is also an achievement for women’s tennis, which is focusing on developing the game in Asia. The WTA Tour, which has an office in Beijing, last year estimated that 14 million people in China regularly play tennis, up from 1 million when the sport returned to the Olympics in 1988. That’s three times as many as in France and about half the 27 million estimated tennis players in the U.S.
“A massive day for Li Na,” Stacey Allaster, chairman and chief executive officer of the WTA Tour, said in an interview at Roland Garros. “This a very big moment for her and for her country.”
Last year, Allaster said China “is our priority market.” Tennis could reach about 100 million people if only 8 or 9 percent of the population took up the sport, she estimated.
Li’s French Open crown comes after a career with many ups and downs, she said in an interview in Paris after her victory. The No. 6 seed was introduced to tennis by her parents at age 9 in Wuhan, China, after playing badminton for two years.
“It was tough, I retired for two years, had injuries,” Li said, a laptop by her side on which she had just been writing an online blog for 2 million fans who follow her on the Chinese website sina.com.
Li’s progress in Paris was followed by Chinese media and state-run China Central Television. After beating former Wimbledon champion Maria Sharapova of Russia in the semifinals, the Shanghai-based Oriental Daily said she was the “No. 1 Sister” of Chinese sports. Her semifinal win was watched by as many as 65 million viewers in China, according to the French Open website.
Li’s run to the final in January in Melbourne led to sponsorship deals with watch brand Rolex, ice-cream maker Haagen-Dazs and medical tape developer SpiderTech.
“She has become iconic now in China,” Max Eisenbud, Li’s agent at IMG, said in an interview. “She has broken down a lot of barriers. She was the first Chinese player in the top 50, then the top 40, 30, 20, first one in the top 10, first one in the finals of a Grand Slam.”
Eisenbud, who also represents Sharapova, the world’s best-paid female athlete, last month said he was “in conversations with about five or six other companies” seeking to endorse Li.
“With a Grand Slam win, she could rival the biggest female properties in tennis in earning power, such as Sharapova and the Williams sisters,” Simon Chadwick, a sports business professor at the Coventry University Business School in England, said in interview before the French Open. Sharapova’s annual earnings were estimated at $24.5 million by Forbes in August.
Vacancy to Fill
“There is a vacancy in the female tennis landscape for a very distinctive and successful tennis player brand,” Chadwick said. “Especially given that she is from China, and given the rapid growth of tennis and the various markets in China, she would seem like the obvious candidate.”
Wang Liangzuo, a former coach of the Chinese women’s tennis team, said in an interview that he hoped Li’s success will further boost the sport in his country. There are four women from China in the top 100.
“A Grand Slam championship has been Chinese players’ dream for decades,” he said “Li Na’s championship mirrors the progress the country has made on various aspects.
“Victory in a game like this can help stimulate Chinese people’s patriotism and make people proud of being a member of our mother country even when their daily lives have nothing to do with tennis,” he said.