Li Na put China on the global tennis map. She lost in the Australian Open to Kim Clijsters, who won 3-6, 6-3, 6-3. More from the NY Times article “Clijsters, While Not at Her Best, Is Still Too Much for Li’ by Christopher Clarey (here):
“She had more experience than me, because she played many finals,” Li said. “Hopefully next time if I play final, I do better.”
In the early 2000s, Australian Open officials began marketing their tournament as the Grand Slam of Asia Pacific in an attempt to connect their event to the region and defend against the possibility of being usurped by an Asian Slam.
Though the label initially elicited skepticism, it has taken hold with many Asian players, and China has had considerable success here in recent years. In 2006, the women’s doubles team of Yan Zi and Zheng Jie became the country’s first Grand Slam champions, and Li and Zheng reached the semifinals in singles last year.
Li, a 28-year-old from Wuhan in central China, took a major step this year, and she will always be the first Chinese — or Asian for that matter — in a Grand Slam singles final.
“Obviously over the years, it’s been America, it’s been Europe,” the third-seeded Clijsters said. “It’s all been very kind of divided between those two continents. It’s nice to kind of see that Asia is starting — and especially China — starting to get recognized in this sport, too.”
Though the crowd was pro-Clijsters, Li had pockets of support at Laver Arena, with dozens of Chinese flags on display and Chinese fans waving signs. But their presence was not all good news for Li, who tired of their running commentary.
After losing her serve in the second set to fall behind, 3-4, she said to the chair umpire, Alison Lang, “Can you tell the Chinese, ‘Don’t teach me how to play tennis?’ ” Lang asked the crowd several times to not shout out during play or use flash photography.
From the China mainland-based Global Times (here):
Meanwhile, the final received blanket media coverage in China, despite tennis' relatively low profile, prompting Li to dream of a Russian-style boom in the world's most populous nation.
Russia had 18 women in the singles draw at Melbourne, while China had just three: Li, Peng Shuai and Zhang Shuai.
China's tennis chief hailed Li as a "pioneer" and drew comparisons with basketball superstar Yao Ming and idolized hurdler Liu Xiang, as the Wuhan native's face adorned major Chinese newspapers and websites.
And, again from the Global Times, some thoughts on the larger implications of Li’s personality (here):
Despite losing the final at the Australian Open, 28-year-old Chinese tennis player Li Na is all the rage in the foreign media. This is related not only to her identity as the first Asian to play in a Grand Slam singles final, but also her courtside humor and bubbly personality.
Women's Tennis Association CEO Stacey Allaster said that on the global stage, Li represents the image of the Chinese people.
Every successful athlete, on certain occasions, becomes a symbol of his or her nation. Previously, Chinese sports players had a strong sense of "representing China," and often appeared conservative and overcautious. Foreign journalists used to find it hard to distinguish among Chinese athletes due to their lack of individuality in their eyes. Li is breaking that stereotype.
Li's impressive performance on the court was driven by her own personality and it represents a social change in China during the past two decades. Mainly, the constraints on self-expression have been shaken off. This forthright girl represents a different China that allows her to "just be herself."
Some foreign media outlets regard Li as a "Chinese tennis rebel." Indeed, she has many characteristics to validate this new title - she wears a rose tattoo on her chest and employs her husband as personal coach; she first thanked her sponsor at the award ceremony, and even asked the chair umpire during the tense second set: "Can you tell the Chinese don't teach me how to play tennis?"
In fact, such "rebelliousness" didn't upset the Chinese, because they've been fed up with clichés like "thank my leaders" or "thank my comrades." Furthermore, being reminded to behave with great care is probably the last thing they want while watching a game.
Chinese society and its people need to relax. They need a little humor and open-mindedness to cope with small mistakes, and imperfection should be allowed from time to time. Being excessively "correct" can lead to untruthfulness and pressure. China is not as "correct" as it was in the past. However, isn't this China more lovely and real?
The story of "Chinese tennis rebel" Li Na becoming the first Asian to play in a Grand Slam singles final has enriched the narrative of China's rise. Nowadays, many Chinese like Li are going global and pursuing their life goals with their vivid personality. They are not obliged to represent China, but they demonstrate a more natural and realistic profile of the nation.