© Ella Ling

Li Na

Li Na and The Great Leap Sideways


The changing expectations on China’s first grand slam singles champion.

There have been so many ‘flame-outs’ since her success at last year’s French Open – lowlights have included a second-round defeat at Wimbledon, a first-round defeat at the US Open, and an opening-round departure from the Beijing tournament – that, on the court, it has looked as though Li Na has been experiencing The Great Leap Sideways. The unkind might even call it The Great Leap Backward. Some of the Chinese tennis public have, unfairly or not, been wondering whether she has been distracted by her off-court sponsorship deals.

As with almost every other modern sporting celebrity, first the fame and the dollars, then the backlash. The criticism is harsh. Tennis enthusiasts in Melbourne will doubtless recall Li’s laughter-filled journey to last year’s Australian Open final, with her one-liners almost as well-timed as her groundstrokes, including some affectionate teasing of her husband for his snoring. A year on, Li has hardly become a corporate tennis drone. What has changed since last year’s grand slam of the Asia-Pacific (otherwise known as the Aussie Open), is others’ expectations. “I think most people think she deserves the new wealth as, after all, winning a grand slam tournament is such a difficult task and she should get nicely rewarded for that,” said Zhang Bendou, a tennis writer for China’s largest circulation sports newspaper, Titan Sports. “However, the money definitely raises the expectations and pressure from outside on Li. When she has not played well, people have made the criticism that she has put too much time into business and lost the focus and motivation on tennis – in my opinion, that criticism isn’t necessarily fair.”

Though, in the weeks immediately after Li’s victory over Italy’s Francesca Schiavone in Paris, it felt as though she was the most popular athlete in China, most would now consider that she trails behind Yao Ming, a former basketball player, and perhaps also behind Liu Xiang, a gold medallist in the 110 metres hurdles at the 2004 Athens Olympics. “You can argue that she was the most popular athlete right after winning at Roland Garros, but right now? I doubt it. I would say that Yao Ming is still the number one, even though he has retired, and he never won the NBA championships. Also maybe the track and field star Liu Xiang is on the same level with Li in popularity. He won the gold medal in Athens, which was such a big breakthrough, and his experience at the Beijing Olympics was very dramatic. He came back after all those injuries and is a very inspiring story,” Zhang told thetennisspace.com.

Zhang argued that Li has been fortunate, financially, that she is Chinese – the other two first-time grand slam champions of last season, the Czech player Petra Kvitova, and the Australian Sam Stosur, have not had anything like as much success with acquiring new sponsorship. “I was not surprised by how well Li has done financially, not at all. The contracts she got after reaching the final of last season’s Australian Open – including with Rolex and Haagen-Dazs – were just the warm-up, and being a grand slam champion is much bigger than the runner-up, so I could see all these coming. We have to appreciate that she has done such great and beautiful things for Chinese tennis but, at the same time, I guess she has to feel fortunate that she is a tennis player from China – she is an athlete playing one of the most international sports from a country with a huge market. In Shanghai, I told Andy Murray that Li had more than ten sponsors, and he looked surprised to hear that,” Zhang said. “If you compare Li with the financial success that Kvitova and Stosur have had since winning their first grand slam titles, you will draw the same conclusion, and both are younger than Li. It is said that more sponsors are coming in, but right now they might hesitate over whether they are making the right decision.”

Still, Li has gone deep into the draw at this week’s Sydney tournament. And if she has a good Australian Open, no one will be able to say that she is leaping sideways.

As Andrea Petkovic has been pondering, should we have a rethink about tennis etiquette? The reason that the German has ‘retired’ her ‘Petko-Dance’ was because she was tired of people saying she was being disrespectful towards her opponents by wiggling her hips. “I’ve said, ‘Listen, the soccer players when they shoot a goal and they celebrate with all kinds of things and they don’t even win the match, nobody would ever say something against them’.” Maybe the po-faced should have a rethink. Petkovic debuted a different move the other day, the ‘Petko Dunk’, but there will be no wiggling or slam-dunking for her at Melbourne Park, as she will miss the first slam of the year because of a back injury.