Chinese Tennis Has Lost Its Greatest Ever Ambassador

With her sense of humour, her individuality, her strong command of English and her willingness to risk upsetting Communist government officials, Li Na was one of a kind.

All this, combined with her success on the court (She was the first Asian woman to win a Grand Slam) ensured she became a very rare creature indeed: a Chinese sports star famous outside of China.

Her influence on the sport in China should not be underestimated. More important, though, is her global influence on people’s perception of China.

She was the first Chinese tennis player to crack jokes, to have her own opinions, to demonstrate a personality, to engage with foreign fans.

Ironically, it was her individuality that most baited the Chinese authorities, hell-bent as they are on crushing dissent and enforcing patriotism.

Li refused to toe the party line. Part of a national training system whose sole function is to produce obedient, focused, unquestioning winners, she broke away mid-career from her state-funded coaches.

It was a bold move, and one that paid off, with wins at the French Open in 2011 and the Australian Open at the start of this year.

After that 2011 win in Paris, she thanked her team and her sponsors but omitted to thank the Chinese motherland.

In 2013, when she crashed out early at the French Open, the official Chinese news agency asked her what message she had for her compatriots back home.

“I lost a game, and that’s it,” she said. “Must I get on my knees and kowtow to them?”

For Chinese state media, such perceived lack of patriotism was tantamount to treason. The Communist Party’s mouthpiece, the People’s Daily was furious.

“Li Na should realise that it will not take too much time for the masses to abandon an athlete when they get tired of them,” it proclaimed.

What the authorities need to realise is that Li’s individualism is exactly what makes her most popular – both within China and without.

She has millions of followers on Chinese social media who would much rather see her win matches, share her opinions, and crack jokes than demonstrate slavish loyalty to the state.

The other thing Chinese authorities fail to realise is that tennis is an individual sport. If players are to win they must necessarily be free-spirited, free to think outside the box, and they must compete for themselves. Slavish loyalty to the motherland won't get them anywhere.

In the end, it was Li’s knees rather than her political masters that eventually put paid to her career.

“After four knee surgeries and hundreds of shots injected into my knee weekly to alleviate swelling and pain, my body is begging me to stop the pounding,” she wrote days ago on her Facebook page.

“My body kept telling me that, at 32, I will not be able to compete at the top level ever again. The sport is just too competitive, too good, to not be 100 per cent.”

It will be intriguing to see whether the next generation of Chinese tennis players follow in Li’s trail-blazing individuality. Or if they do what so many of their peers do, and acquiesce to the state.

“I hope that I’ve had the opportunity to inspire young women all over China to believe in themselves, to set their goals high and pursue them with vengeance and self-belief,” she signed off, on her Facebook message.

“Whether you want to be a tennis player, a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher or a business leader, I urge you to believe in yourself and follow your dream. If I could do it, you can too! Be the bird that sticks out.”

How will Li Na’s colleagues fare in the next Grand Slam, the 2015 Australian Open? Unibet has Serena Williams as favourite to win at 2.50, followed by Maria Sharapova at 8.00, Petra Kvitova at 9.00 and Simona Halep at 10.00