x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Success of Li Na represents a lesson in what cannot be taught

The popularity of China's Li Na has even transcended the sport, writes Ahmed Rizvi.

Li Na is among the most popular sports figures in China where 116 million people watched her win the French Open title. Clive Brunskill / Getty Images
Li Na is among the most popular sports figures in China where 116 million people watched her win the French Open title. Clive Brunskill / Getty Images

Last year, after Li Na was dumped out of the US Open by British teenager Laura Robson in the third round, one of China's top tennis officials blamed her sudden meltdowns on a lack of "good education".

"We have seen for a long time that Li Na can suddenly collapse," Sun Jinfang, director of China's tennis administrative centre, said in a television interview last September. "Why is this? Because athletes like her have not received a good education.

"Without good education, the sportsmen or women are just like well-designed computers with ill-suited software, impossible to perform their best."

It was a harsh assessment, if not completely bereft of facts. When she was 20, Li had taken a two-year sabbatical from the game to complete a bachelor's degree from Huazhong University of Science and Technology.

And how many people would dare to question the abilities of Asia's only grand slam singles champion? The 2011 French Open champion is one of the most respected athletes on the WTA Tour and her success proves that.

After Li defeated Francesca Schiavone 6-4, 7-6 in the final at Roland Garros, her popularity, and that of her sport, has skyrocketed in China.

In a nation where tennis has been relatively unpopular, regular players have risen from five million in 2005 to 30 million in 2011. The WTA has predicted those numbers could reach 300 million. Tennis academies are mushrooming around China, with budding youngsters hoping to emulate "sister Li".

She boasts more than 14 million followers on Sina Weibo, China's version of Twitter, and her soaring popularity in a nation of 1.3 billion has also brought unimaginable riches.

According to some estimates, she could soon overtake Maria Sharapova as the richest woman in sport.

This success put Li on Time magazine's annual list of 100 of the world's most influential people for 2013, alongside the likes of Barack Obama, the US president, and rapper Jay-Z.

She is the only tennis player included and one of only four sports figures on the list.

"Tennis has exploded in China," Chris Evert, the former world No 1, writes in the magazine.

"116 million people watched Li win the French Open. That kind of exposure is crucial to our sport, and it never would have happened without Li.

"At tournaments, I've seen her charm the crowds. When she smiles, everyone melts. She's such a breath of fresh air. And like Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova before her, Li Na has transcended her sport."

And to do that without a "good education" makes her achievements even more significant.


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