At Wimbledon, China’s Tennis Rebel Holds Serve

July 1 (Bloomberg) -- Today, China’s Li Na dominated her way into the Wimbledon quarterfinals. This probably comes as a surprise to her patriotic, sports-loving countrymen. Since becoming China’s first -- and so far only -- Grand Slam tennis title winner when she took the French Open in 2011, Li has largely underwhelmed. Occasional lapses in concentration and seeming indifference have characterized her playing in recent tournaments -- and over the last week at Wimbledon -- and so, there was good reason to believe that as the competition stiffened in London, her luck would run out.

Although the steelier Li hasn’t been seen much on the court lately, she’s certainly been heard after the matches. This is the Li who, in 2008, became one of a handful of Chinese athletes to leave behind the country’s state-run national athletics system and go independent. Once outside the system that had chosen and cultivated her, she found near immediate success, including her French Open victory.

Li’s willingness to scoff at what she left behind -- a system and fans that co-opt victories for their own (often political) ends -- is almost unbridled. In 2012, when asked if she could explain to fans why she failed to defend her French Open title, she snapped back: “Do I need to get on my knees and kowtow to them? Apologize to them?”

On Saturday, when questioned about whether she felt pressure from the Chinese state to win Wimbledon, she responded: “Why should I carry an entire country? I’m just a tennis player playing tennis as best as I can. This is my job.”

Outside China, these quotes may read like nothing more than the rant of a spoiled athlete in it for herself. The U.S. has plenty. But within China, the self-centered athlete is something unique, modern and even subversive.

The comparison is especially stark when compared with how athletes in the state-run system are expected to behave. In 2010, Zhou Yang, a gold-medal-winning Olympic speed skater, gave a post-victory interview in which she publicly thanked her parents but -- critically -- not her country. Not long after, a deputy director of China’s National Sports Bureau publicly criticized her for the oversight. Zhou was compelled to offer up a second expression of gratitude that emphasized country over family. It’s hard to imagine Li would have done the same, even if she were still in the state-run system.

Li’s sharp tongue and unwillingness to play by the rules that have always governed Chinese sports have certainly alienated more conservative and patriotic fans. But nothing earns forgiveness from a sports fan quite like victory. In the unlikely event that Li advances to the Wimbledon final, much less wins it, this salty rebel will certainly find herself embraced by the patriotic Chinese sporting public.

(Adam Minter is the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog and a contributor to the Ticker. Follow him on Twitter.)

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