Tennis star Li Na exemplifies China's newfound entrepreneurial spirit.
One competitor who has been notably missing from the U.S. Open tennis tournament, now approaching its final weekend, is China’s Li Na—currently the world’s no. 3 ranked women’s singles player. Li, who withdrew from the Open due to a knee injury, also happens to be one of the world’s most marketable athletes.
Just in the past decade or so, tennis in China has soared in popularity, rising along with middle class affluence and an uptick in healthy leisure activities. An outspoken celebrity in China who became the first Asian champion of the Australian Open earlier this year, Li can arguably also claim credit for the sport’s rise. The 32-year-old enjoyed a succession of historic victories even before she won the French Open in 2011, making her the first Chinese player to claim a grand slam singles title.
A record 116 million Chinese viewers tuned in to watch her compete in the French Open finals, and the charismatic tennis star quickly attracted major Western and Asian corporate sponsorship deals totaling over US$40 million. She joined the ranks of such icons as Michael Jordan and John McEnroe to have her name etched on a Nike building.
Li has been a trailblazer not only in athletics, but also in the way she has managed her own career. In 2008, she famously split from China’s state-run sports system, selected her own coach, set her own schedules and (gasp) revealed a tattoo of a rose on her chest that she had previously hidden.
As a child, she came up through China’s Soviet-style athletic factory, starting with badminton. In those days, the government required its elite athletes to hand over more than half their pretax income, including endorsement earnings, for their entire careers. But six years ago, Li was among a few athletes to lobby for more freedom. Instead of giving 65% of her income back to the China Tennis Association and other local authorities, Li paid back less than 12% under new rules. She has also donated much of her prize money to charities and is widely adored—particularly by China’s younger generation—with about 23 million followers on a Chinese social media site. Compare that to Serena Williams’s roughly 4.3 million followers on Twitter.
The reforms in Chinese sports have been radical, not only for Li’s career and influence, but also for China. Decades ago during the Cultural Revolution, successful athletes could be accused of “trophy mania,” meaning they had committed the crime of promoting individual achievement.
Things are a bit different now—although Li has made headlines for actually not thanking her homeland in speeches, and promoting individualism, rather than merely “bringing glory to the state.” Her entrepreneurial spirit is now mirrored by millions of Chinese who are able to start their own companies and create innovative products and services. While Li’s tennis future may be uncertain, her impact on Chinese society is clear.
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