x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Red-hot Li creating revolution in Republic

An unprecedented number of people are taking to tennis in China since the success of the world No 7.

Na Li was a runner-up at this year's Australian Open. Greg Wood / AFP
Na Li was a runner-up at this year's Australian Open. Greg Wood / AFP

If the theory is correct and Li Na is representative of Chinese tennis, then the WTA Tour can look forward to not only a massive surge in popularity, but also an influx of intriguing, sharp-tongued young women.

Li, ranked No 7 in the world, is the rebel of the Tour's ever-growing Chinese sorority - there are four in the top 100, all of whom will compete in the WTA Dubai Tennis Championships today after Peng Shuai and Jie Zheng battled through to join Zhang Shuai and Li in the second round.

Li, with a tattoo on her collarbone, glimmering studs in her upper ear, a relaxed demeanour and a wicked sense of humour, appears almost the direct juxtaposition of the innocent and timid-looking Jie.

The two players each reached the semi-finals of the Australian Open last year, before falling to straight-sets defeats by Serena Williams (Li) and Justine Henin (Jie). Last month, however, Li built on her performance and went one step further to become the first Chinese player to reach a major final.

Despite defeat to Kim Clijsters, now the world No 1, the achievement saw her earn widespread international recognition and strengthened the argument that tennis in China - and interest therein - is on the rise.

"Three television stations showed the final match [live] at the same time and after the final, I am told, all the tennis courts at home were fully booked," said Li, who having returned home to celebrate Chinese New Year, this afternoon makes her first on-court appearance since Melbourne.

Before tennis returned to the Olympics in Seoul in 1988, the WTA reported China had around one million people who played the game. But six and a half years since Li Ting and Sun Tiantian won doubles gold at the 2004 Olympics in Athens and there are now said to be 14 million players in the People's Republic playing on roughly 70,000 courts across the country.

Jie watched her compatriot's match with Clijsters from a tennis centre in China and said yesterday that she is noticing a change in perspectives back home.

"Before when people asked me what sport I play and I said tennis, they would ask: 'Badminton? Table tennis?'. Not too many people knew, but now when you say tennis, they reply 'Oh, great; Chinese women are so good at tennis', so it's exciting for us," Jie said.

Undoubtedly, Russia has developed into a dominant force in the women's game in recent years, taking seven grand slam titles in the past 10 years. But to put the above figures in perspective, while Russia has a population of 140 million, China, at close to 1.4 billion, is 10 times as large. If tennis takes a grip of China; China takes a grip of the Tour.

"Because I was in the [Australia Open] final, many children look at me and think that, in three or five years, they can do better," Li said.

"So, in time, there will be an improvement in the players from China. I wish for this, but you never know - maybe the people [who have been spurred to book up the tennis courts] will only be interested for two days and then on the third day they won't want to go anymore ..."

Li comes from Wuhan in Hubei province. Being resident in the most densely inhabited city in central China one would imagine being recognised in the street could pose problems. Yet the 28-year-old enjoys the attention her recent success has brought her, so long as she can retain her independence.

"I prefer to be famous, but after I retire I would like to get back to normal life," said Li, who is coached by her husband Jiang Shan and intends to become a housewife when she retires.

"I mean now I might be famous in China, but I still prefer to do what I want, I don't need this thing of what to do and what not to do. That is fake. The people who like you, like you regardless. I like being the way I want to be."

That said, she appreciates her prominence in the provinces means she is fast becoming a role model for young Chinese women and, when she undergoes winter training at home for two weeks each year, she takes time to help develop the sport's grassroots.

"Maybe before," Li said, "I could throw my racket and do something bad on the court, but now I can't do that anymore because many watching me would say 'she's doing that and also I can do that'.

"I play with the young players when I go home and they are good, but they do not trust themselves. They say they want to be top 100, top 200, but they say it only with the mouth, not with the heart. This is a problem."

Lacking heart is not a problem for Li - she has one inked on to her neckline - and when asked if she is confident going into this evening's match with Yanina Wickmayer, the rebel reappears to provide a rolling of the eyes and typical mock-patronising smile.

"What am I supposed to say, no?"