Li Na Gaining Steam as Chinese Megastar with 2014 Australian Open Title

Lindsay Gibbs@linzsports Featured ColumnistJanuary 25, 2014

Rick Rycroft/AP Images

Watch out, Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka. After winning her second major title at the 2014 Australian Open on Saturday, Li Na might just be the most famous woman in tennis.

In front of an adoring Melbourne crowd in Rod Laver Arena, the popular 31-year-old from China, No. 4, defeated No. 20 Dominika Cibulkova 7-6 (3), 6-0 in a nervy but entertaining final. Though she made the Australian Open final back in 2011 and 2013, this was Li's first time going into the last match as the favorite, and she handled the pressure like a champion. 

Li, who also won the 2011 French Open, followed up her triumph by giving one of the funniest victory speeches in Grand Slam history. Proving why she is so beloved, Li was sure to first thank her agent, Max Eisenbud, whom she shares with Sharapova, for making her rich. 

Not only is Li by far the best interview in tennis, she also might be the most marketable—after all, Eisenbud wasn't first on her gratitude list for nothing. Once the talented but often unpredictable Li won her first slam, her sponsorship portfolio skyrocketed, as Caroline Cheese wrote for CNN in 2012: 

Li has signed seven new sponsorship deals since her Roland Garros triumph. Among them are luxury car maker Mercedes Benz and Chinese insurance company Taikang Life Insurance Co.

Eisenbud even managed to negotiate a special deal with Nike to allow Li to wear patches on her clothing -- something not usually permitted by the American sportswear giant.

Coming from the land of 1.36 billion people, Li has been the face of tennis in China for over a decade. A trailblazer, she was the first woman from China to win a WTA title (Guangzhou, 2004), the first woman from China to reach a Grand Slam quarterfinal (Wimbledon, 2006), the first to make a Grand Slam final (Australian Open, 2011) and, of course, the first Chinese woman to win a major.

Li Na with the 2011 French Open trophy.
Li Na with the 2011 French Open trophy.Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Perhaps most notably, all of her success has come on her own terms. In 2008, Li bravely split from the Chinese Tennis Federation, the government group that had run her tennis career from the beginning and which was taking 65 percent of her earnings, according to CNN's Xiaoni Chen and Jaime FlorCruz. The split was seen as blasphemous by many, but it eventually encouraged other athletes in China to take care of their own careers.

She continued to make waves by busting through Asian stereotypes left and right.

There is nothing submissive about Li, who has tattoos, publicly talks about her husband's snoring and has been known to tell her own fans to "shut up" if they are being too boisterous. As seen above, her interviews often turn into stand-up comedy routines that poke fun of those in her camp, and she's not afraid to confront the Chinese press, which can be vicious. 

But don't let her maverick ways confuse you—Li is known more for her smile than her bite. Even Cibulkova didn't have a bad thing to say about her conqueror after losing in the final, per

I have to say she's one of the nicest players on tour, you know. I really like her. I think everybody likes her sense of humor, you know. Yeah, she's a great player and a grand champion.

Li's popularity cannot be overstated. As Cliff Drysdale noted on the ESPN broadcast of the final, she has four times as many followers on social media than Slovakia, the country Cibulkova is from, has people. 

He's not exaggerating, either. On China's social media platform San Weibo, Li Na has over 22 million fans. To put that into perspective, that's more than the Twitter followers of Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka combined. 

Last year, Li was named one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people in the world. She was one of only four athletes on the entire list, and she was one of only seven selected for individual covers.

Dominika Cibulkova, Chris Evert and Li Na.
Dominika Cibulkova, Chris Evert and Li Na.Rick Rycroft/Associated Press

Chris Evert, who was on hand to present Li the trophy in Melbourne on Saturday, wrote in Time about what Li has meant to the sport of tennis and to her country: 

Tennis has exploded in China. The country now has some 15 million tennis players; 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.

Li's late-blooming ascension to the top of the game hasn't been easy, though.

She shocked everyone—including herself—when she won the 2011 French Open title, and she struggled mightily afterward, winning only six matches for the remainder of the year. But she recommitted to tennis in mid-2012 when she hired Carlos Rodriguez, Justine Henin's longtime coach, and demoted her good-natured husband Dennis from coach to errand boy.

Rick Rycroft/Associated Press

However, after falling short once again in the 2013 Australian Open final to Azarenka, Li found herself being bothered by the harsh criticism of the Chinese media and contemplating retirement. She told Rodriguez after her second-round loss at the French Open that she was pondering leaving the game, but they decided that she would play Wimbledon and then see what happened.

That decision looks pretty great in hindsight. Li made the quarterfinals of Wimbledon, the semifinals of the U.S. Open and by the end of the year was at a career high of No. 3. 

Now, after two weeks Down Under that saw her save a match point in the third round against Lucie Safarova and never look back, Li is the first Asian winner of the Slam of the Asia-Pacific. She will move back up to her career-high ranking of No. 3 on Monday and will be just 11 points behind Azarenka at No. 2. 

Most importantly, as she approaches 32, Li is finally feeling at ease with herself, her game, her team and her role in the spotlight. The 2011 French Open victory was a surprise, but she believed she could win this one. This victory is sweeter. The retirement thoughts are a thing of the past; now she wants to savor even more success.

With a backhand that is now one of the best shots in the game, a commitment to coming to the net and a serve and forehand that can carry their weight, there could be a lot more hardware in Li's future.

The pride of China has it all—the game to push Williams and Azarenka, the personality to capture the hearts of casual fans everywhere, the confidence to play her best tennis under the most pressure and the popularity to take the game of tennis to new heights globally.

The scary thing is, for Li, this might only be the beginning. 


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