Li Na: Made in China
Li Na's maiden Grand Slam victory at Roland Garros was watched back home by 116 million people. Regardless of what else she achieves, she has changed Chinese tennis forever
Li Na continued to create tennis history this week by becoming the first Chinese player to reach the TEB BNP Paribas WTA Championships in Istanbul
LI NA has no intention of retiring just yet, but when the French Open champion puts away her rackets for the last time she will look forward to a simple life. “I’d like to be a housewife,” Li said recently when asked to consider what the future might have in store for her. She added with a smile: “Maybe that will be a time for my husband to do a job. I’ve done all the hard work and maybe he should do something for me. When I am done with my tennis career I will just want to enjoy life.”
Nearly every champion is backed by a successful team and the greatest player in China’s history is no exception. While the Danish coach, Michael Mortensen, was given much of the credit for turning Li’s year around in the build-up to her historic triumph at Roland Garros, there is no doubt that Jiang Shan, her husband, has been the biggest influence on her career. To the public at large he might appear to be little more than the butt of her jokes, but in her quieter off-court moments Li acknowledges how she could not have achieved her success without his help.
If Li has been the biggest star on the women’s stage this year, Jiang has played the part of best supporting actor. Li delighted the crowds at the Australian Open with references to his snoring the night before matches. “I think today he can stay in the bathroom,” she said when looking ahead to her final against Kim Clijsters. She also said she would always love him even if he was “fat and ugly”.
In Paris it was Jiang’s absence that seemed to inspire her. Li was losing 3-0 in the final set against Petra Kvitova when her husband left the court, after which the match was turned on its head. “Maybe it was because my husband left that I was able to win six games in a row,” she joked afterwards.
Later that week, however, his support was crucial before her victory over Francesca Schiavone in the final. Li explained: “I told him: ‘I know I should try not to feel the pressure, but I’m still nervous. This is the final and you don’t get many chances like this.’ He said: ‘Listen, she’s the defending champion. You’re in your first Roland Garros final. What have you got to lose? Don’t think too much about what it will be like after you’ve won or you’ve lost. It’s just one match. Go out there and show the whole world that you can play good tennis.’”
Li and her husband met in their home city of Wuhan in Hubei province when she was just 12 years old. She is said to have asked him to marry her on Valentine’s Day in 2005. At that stage he had already persuaded her to make perhaps the most crucial decision of her life, when he talked her into returning to tennis after spending two years out of the game.
“My father was a badminton player,” Li said as she recalled the early years of her sporting career. “He had this idea that I would become a professional badminton player. I played between the ages of six and eight, but the badminton coach said to me: ‘You play badminton like a tennis player. Give tennis a try.’ I did – and I’ve played it ever since.
“In the beginning I didn’t particularly like tennis. It wasn’t as big in China then as it is now. Not many people played tennis and the courts were all clay, not hard, though that has changed. My parents had to make a choice: either I could play tennis or I would have to stay at school. I enjoyed my tennis and that was what I ended up doing.”
Li was sent to train at the John Newcombe Tennis Ranch in Texas when she was 15. She won her first titles on the International Tennis Federation circuit at 17, but the Chinese federation wanted her to concentrate on doubles, having identified that as the area in which the country might enjoy the quickest success.
At that time all the leading Chinese players were obliged to hand over 65 per cent of their winnings to the national federation, which in turn paid for all their travel, coaching and equipment. From the governing body’s viewpoint its doubles strategy paid off – Sun Tiantian and Li Ting won gold at the 2004 Olympics and Zheng Jie and Yan Zhi won Grand Slam titles at Melbourne and Wimbledon two years later – but Li saw her future in singles. In 2002, at the age of 20, she quit the game in frustrationâ¨and enrolled in journalism school.
“I didn’t play tennis for two years,” Li recalled. “In my class, nobody knew I was a tennis player. We had a choice about which sport we wanted to play. Some chose tennis, but I said: ‘No, sorry, I don’t know how to play tennis.’ In 2008, when I was playing in the Olympics in Beijing, some of my old classmates saw me and said: ‘Wow, where did you learn to play tennis that well?’”
It was Jiang, then Li’s boyfriend, who persuaded her in 2004 that she might regret not giving the sport another try. She has not looked back since. Not only has 29-year-old Li gone on to become Asia’s first Grand Slam singles champion but she has also become wealthy beyond her dreams.
When the Chinese federation eased its control over the players, allowing them to opt out of the national system and keep the vast majority of their prizemoney, Li was one of the first to take advantage. However, it is her earning power off the court that has been most striking.
Max Eisenbud, the IMG agent who helped Maria Sharapova become the world’s highest-earning sportswoman, is now also working on Li’s behalf. Her success at this year’s Australian Open led to sponsorship deals with Rolex, Haagen-Dazs and SpiderTech, while Mercedes-Benz announced a partnership with the new French Open champion, making her their first Chinese global brand ambassador.
Largely as a result of Li’s success, there is growing interest in tennis in China, which is seen by the game’s authorities as a huge potential market. The autumn tournaments in China are now well established, while Li’s Paris triumph was watched by a record-breaking 116 million viewers, which made it the year’s most watched sporting event on television in the world’s largest market.
“I think what I’ve achieved might improve tennis in China a little bit, because more children will have seen me play,” Li said. “They might think: ‘OK, maybe some day I can do the same or even better than her.’ I think children will now feel more confident about playing professional tennis.”
As far as her own game is concerned, the biggest change in Li has been her consistency. She was always a fine athlete and ball-striker, but there used to be doubts as to whether she could maintain her level of performance over a prolonged period. Those fears were reinforced in the weeks after she made the Australian Open final, but following a woeful run of results her husband stepped down as coach in favour of Mortensen. The change had an immediate impact on Li’s form. Having beaten Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova, two of the favourites to win at Roland Garros, she went on to outplay Schiavone, who had no answer to the power and accuracy of her groundstrokes. Li was one of the favourites for Wimbledon but lost in the second round to Sabine Lisicki, going down 8-6 in the final set.
“I’d never had the experience of getting to a Grand Slam final before,” Li said when explaining her post-Australian Open slump. “After Melbourne I just couldn’t concentrate in training because I had so many things to do. I thought to myself: ‘I don’t need to do the work. I can still win.’ But after the start of the season I couldn’t win a match, so I started to change the team a little bit.
“It’s always tough when a player’s husband is her coach and you’re always fighting on the court. Michael Mortensen came in. He gave me a lot of confidence. He always says: ‘You should trust yourself.’ You can’t always win your matches, but if you lose a match you should find out why you lost it and then try to win next time.”
Jiang remains Li’s hitting partner and still tours with her. “We talk about everything,” Li said. “We’re not just husband and wife. We’re also friends. After I lost in Stuttgart we sat down to talk about it. I said: ‘We should change things.’ He said: ‘Yes, I agree. What do you think we should change?’ I said: ‘Maybe we need to find a coach.’ He said: ‘No problem.’
“Afterwards I felt much easier that he wasn’t my coach. He did too. He can do everything for me, but sometimes I would think: ‘You’re my husband. Why are you shouting at me on the court?’ This isn’t easy to change. But now I can talk about everything to do with tennis with my coach and talk about everything to do with the rest of my life with my husband.”
This feature by Paul Newman, tennis correspondent for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday, apppeared in Volume 2, Issue 4 of tennishead. Click here to subscribe to the world's greatest tennis magazine.