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Home  /  Inside China  /  Li Na - From an athlete in the shadows to a new national hero
Li Na - From an athlete in the shadows to a new national hero print version
Li Na (李娜) reached success through the backdoor, but within hours she had become the number one source of national pride. How will the 2011 French Open victory (and the first Grand-slam title won by an Asian), change the career, the public relations and the character of China's new tennis hero?

Tennis isn't a Chinese national sport and neither it is a prestigious Olympic event which makes it a target of national resources; Li Na (李娜) isn't a young prodigy nor is she the possessor of a unique athletic body; she is also not the most influential ambassador, as she doesn't carry out moving patriotic speeches nor take herself too seriously. But somehow all these ingredients led to the most significant Chinese sport achievement of recent years.

Not only did she win her first tennis Grand-slam title in age 29, not only she's the first Chinese to obtain such honor, she is in fact the first single Grand-slam champion, male or female, to come out of Asia. And all of this happened in such a subtle and latent way. Indications of her fantastic shape were given when Li Na reached the final of the Australian Open earlier this year. While she was a complete underdog in that match (losing to Belgian Kim Clijsters), when the French Open final began it seemed more like a 50-50 occasion.

In China, within a few months, and especially within a few hours on Saturday, June 4th, Li Na has become a meteoric novel star. The fact that she isn't a young athlete or a former champion; she isn't a football or basketball star and rather a figure in a sport most Chinese seldom watch; and most importantly, the fact that from one of many decent players she has suddenly become the woman who makes history for the entire continent, have all boosted mainland Chinese hearts with an unprecedented high dose of national pride.

The match was broadcasted live throughout China, and the Chinese press made an efficient job in quoting all the compliments given to Li Na by important tennis personnel in the post-final moments. As expected, the Chinese media is also amplifying statements Li Na has addressed to the Chinese nation, like the her hope to inspire the heart of many kids, the acknowledgement of the pride she has brought to China, and so on. Many tennis coaches in China are also utilizing the occasion to promote tennis, while also mentioning their part in shaping Li Na earlier on.

It will be interesting to see how this one huge victory established Li Na as a public figure in China. Li Na is considered a modest girl who is fond of understatements and sarcasm. After the Australian Open final, some journalists in the Chinese media have complimented her candid character, and expressed appreciation to the manner Li doesn't speak about inducing national pride, but rather jokes about "winning more money prizes so I could go shopping" (See). After the Australian finals' defeat some journalists and sport experts also criticized the fact that in China's sport often only the champion is esteemed (唯金牌论 - 'Only-gold-medal approach') while the a runner-up, Li Na in that case, wasn't appreciated enough.

And now, Li Na is number one and she is and will be pressured by the China public realm to be less sarcastic and to carry the torch of national pride. The money she could now obtain through commercial campaigns can make the $1.5 million won in France seem like pocket money, an issue which could motivate her to agree to play the role of a national hero, even if a different role completely brought her to stardom.

"We love you Li Na" was the banner shown on CCTV during the final, and other Chinese media groups don't curb their enthusiasm as well, while maintaining some composure. On a discussion board in qq.com, dedicated to netizens' posts about Li Na, statements such as 全中国人为她自豪!(Entire China sees her as our pride!) 娜姐真牛 ('sister' Na is really cool)  are posted, while some surfers also mentioned the moving compliments and blessing expressed by the runner-up, Italian Francesca Schiavone, or the amusing fact that the foreign media still hasn't figured out if her the new champion's name is Li Na or Na Li.

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'Oops! I left China as an isoteric athlete and now everbody wants a share'

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