Li Na: Breaking the mould of Chinese tennis

The recent coverage of Chinese sport, certainly in the British media, has been dominated by their domestic football league, the CSL. China is a huge country however and has so much more to offer the sporting world than simply paying huge sums of money for famous footballers, and signs of what they have to offer have started to emerge. Tennis may seem like an unlikely source of success for the Chinese but it is a sport gathering traction all the time as more and more players, especially in the women's game, move up the rankings. For young Chinese players there can be only one inspiration and that is Li Na.

The growth of tennis in China has accelerated faster than anyone could possibly have imagined and the major reason for this is down to the success of Li with Shuai Peng also doing her bit for the cause. Things could have turned out very differently had Li followed in her father's footsteps and pursued a career in badminton, as looked likely at one point. It was at the age of seven however when Li switched to tennis on the recommendation of a coach from the Wuhan youth tennis club. This was a decision that would prove to be important not only for Li, but for China too.


In China, it is the government that runs tennis and as such controls which coaches a player is assigned and even sets their tour schedules. The benefits of this arrangement is that the government pay for all the expenses, but in return they receive two thirds of a players tournament earnings and almost all of their sponsorship money, whilst also expecting them to play in national and regional tournaments. The toughest tests for Li began from a very young age as her assigned coaches used negative reinforcement to teach her tennis. They would yell insults at her whilst she trained calling her 'stupid' and a 'pig' and have her run highly repetitive drills. Li wrote in her memoirs that she would hide under the blanket at night and cry quietly, being careful to not let her coaches hear her. Li was 11 years old at the time.


At age 15, Li was sent to study at the John Newcombe tennis academy in Texas as it was clear that her talent should be nurtured in the right environment. The intervention from the state did not stop there though. As Li began to improve quickly the Chinese Tennis Association (CTA) pushed her to turn professional at the age of 17, a move that would end badly for all parties. Li quit tennis before her 21st birthday and decided to go to college to study. The reasons for this have been discussed by various parties. The Chinese media hypothesised that her request for a personal coach was declined, that she had a health problem or that her coach was too strict and demanding causing Li to burn out. Others have questioned whether Li got frustrated with handing over so much of her prize money to the CTA and their constant involvement in her career.  

By 2004, Li was back playing tennis but, along with Peng, was having to endure criticism from the CTA. Both players had begun to speak out publicly about the limits and restrictions placed on Chinese players due to almost being controlled by the CTA. Peng was branded as unpatriotic whilst Li was warned that she was at risk of not being selected for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. It was in 2008 however, that the biggest and perhaps most significant moment of Li's career occurred.


After reaching the quarter final at Wimbledon in 2006 and the semi final at Indian Wells in 2007, it was quickly becoming apparent that Li was a prospect like no other that China had ever seen. Her progress could not be stifled and the CTA knew that. Then, in 2008 an official policy titled 'danfei', translated to “fly solo”, was introduced by the CTA which gave Li and Peng a unique exemption status. The new policy allowed both players to keep around 90% of their tournament earnings, set their own schedules and even select their own coaches in return for one thing. They were tasked with bringing glory to the nation of China.

Since danfei was introduced, the success of both players continued to grow. Li won the French Open in 2011 and the Australian Open in 2014. Between 2010 and 2014, Li played in four Grand Slam finals, two semi finals and two quarter finals, reaching a career high ranking of number two in the world in 2014. Peng was equally prolific in the doubles as she, to date, has earned two Grand Slam titles in the women's doubles at Wimbledon 2013 and the French Open in 2014.


As Li and Peng held up their ends of the danfei bargain and gained unprecedented success, the CTA were also huge beneficiaries of the policy. The Shenzhen Open debuted on the WTA tour in 2013 and was followed by the Wuhan Open, Jiangxi Open and Tianjin Open in 2014 making six WTA tournaments held in China today. Whether or not China would have been awarded so many new WTA events, including one in Li's home town, had they not had such great success in the sport is highly doubtful.


The success of Li, the only Asian Grand Slam singles champion to date, saw her become an icon of the sport. She was the face of Nike advertisements across China, she was on the cover of Time magazine and listed as 85th in the Forbes Celebrity 100 list in 2012, one of only three female athletes to make the list that year. It is widely accepted that her achievements are one of the main reasons why there has been major growth in the amount of people playing tennis in East Asia. For the statistical types among you, as of January 2017, China has five players in the WTA top 100 and 61 players with a WTA ranking. Four years ago they had three players in the WTA top 100 and 40 players with a WTA ranking. A 50% growth of WTA ranked players in just four years.


Perhaps even more encouraging for China going forward is that of the 61 WTA ranked players they currently have, 22 of them are still teenagers. There is no doubt that there has been a real change in China since the success of Li as more and more young Chinese girls begin to see tennis as a real sporting option and have a strong and successful role model to look up to, even though she is now retired. It is important to understand that Li is not the traditional Chinese sportstar. She is unafraid of criticising the government and their involvement in sport and when she won the Australian Open in 2014 she did not mention China in her victory speech, a move that gained over 350,000 comments on China's leading blog.


There is no doubt that China will produce another Grand Slam champion in the next decade or so. The fame of Li Na became so strong that tennis has now become huge industry in China with new stadiums being built regularly. The more players that China has with a WTA ranking and the more big tournaments they host, the more youngsters will want to pick up a racket and that can only be good news for the sport. These young players will of course encounter a dilemma at some point in their careers as to whether the CTA and the government know what is best or whether danfei is the way forward.



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