The Tennis Space: People of Influence:
Number 10: Li Na
Sphere of influence: China, women’s tennis.
What she has done
When you have 1.3 billion people behind you, that brings you quite a bit of power and influence. Li Na made history for China when she became the first player, man or woman, to win a grand slam singles title at the French Open in 2011. The WTA says her final victory over Francesca Schiavone was watched by around 116 million people in China, so if only a tiny percentage of those people take up tennis, the sport will boom in her home country.
When tennis returned to the Olympics in 1988, an estimated 1 million people in China played tennis regularly. Now, the WTA estimate it has grown to 14 million and the success of Li will only make that number swell.
Li has been a trailblazer in more ways than one, breaking away from the Chinese federation after the Beijing Olympics, a move which means she now gets to keep 90 percent of her prize money, rather than having to hand back around two thirds to the government and give them control of her marketing rights.
The sponsors have poured in since that French Open triumph – Li’s agent is Max Eisenbud, who also happens to represent Maria Sharapova – and she is reportedly now the second-highest earner behind the Russian, in terms of prize money and endorsements.
Money is important to her – she says that before the French Open final, the idea that she would get lots of prize money, win or lose, calmed her nerves – but she is also a role model, handling the pressure from the Chinese media with a combination of bluntness and humour that continue to make her a fan favourite.
Did you know?
Li quit tennis for almost two years in 2002, deciding to go to university to study journalism. She did not even tell her classmates that she played tennis so when they saw her on TV at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, they were all shocked.