A Chinese Fairytale: The Li Na Story

Zhenyu LiContributor IIIJuly 24, 2011

Li Na: A Chinese Fairytale
Li Na: A Chinese FairytaleFeng Li/Getty Images

As Yao Ming, China's brightest sports star officially announced his retirement four days ago, Li Na, the nation's first Grand Slam singles champion, was deemed by many to be a successor of Yao in terms of international clout in sports.

Although the world No.4 ranked Chinese squandered two match points in a second-round defeat by German wildcard Sabine Lisicki at Wimbledon a month ago, Li is still considered as a sporting heroine in China after she won last month's French Open.

The Chinese "Golden Flower" bloomed into glory last June by beating the reigning champion Francesca Schiavone 6-4 7-6 in the French Open final, becoming the first player from an Asian nation to win a grand-slam title.

Li's historical triumph has catapulted her, domestically, to the ranks of retired NBA superstar center Yao Ming.

Tennis fans around the world would be somewhat curious as to how the 29-year-old "Big Sister Na" became China's first Grand Slam singles champ at Roland Garros overnight.

It's hard to overstate what a disadvantage it's been for Li to come to tennis from China, a nation with virtually no tradition in the sport, and it's easy to underestimate how many grounds Li has had to cover from an unknown Chinese novelty of yesterday to where she is today — lofting a Grand Slam singles trophy, beaming. 

Na Li has turned herself from an unknown Chinese novelty of yesterday to where she is today — lofting a Grand Slam singles trophy, beaming.
Na Li has turned herself from an unknown Chinese novelty of yesterday to where she is today — lofting a Grand Slam singles trophy, beaming.Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Li who was born on February 26, 1982, in Wuhan, Hubei, China came to tennis, a sport that was utterly unfamiliar in China at the time, at age 9.

Li grew up in China's highly centralized and rigid sports program, a style adopted from the Soviet Union. The Chinese government invests heavily in sport and recruits athletes at a young age. Although this system has created a number of world champions across many sports, it is infamous for its strict management and the sacrifices athletes are expected to make.

At the age of six, Li was selected to play badminton at her local sports school. Her father, an amateur badminton player who died from cardiovascular disease when Li was 14, was keen for her to focus on badminton until her coach introduced her to tennis. Li switched to tennis at the age of 9 and joined China's National Tennis Team in 1997. She graduated to the ITF circuit and by age 20 she was in the Top 200.

At the end of 2002, Li left the national tennis team to study at Huazhong University of Science and Technology, where she completed her bachelor degree in journalism eventually in 2009. Li returned to the national team in 2004.

At that time, Chinese athletes still had no hope for success on an international scale without the support of the all-powerful state. 

In late 2008, Li quit the China's tennis program becoming a free player and started her own team. With this new arrangement, she was able to choose her own coach and pay 8-12% of her winnings to the government compared with 65 percent in the past.

This means she is now responsible to her own financial security, paying for her coach, traveling and everything on her own. Many in China consider this to be a very daring move for someone who has always been looked after by the Chinese sports system.

However, Li's career has ridden on a high-speed rail since she pulled out of the system in 2008 and reached a climax in 2011, advancing to the Australian Open finals in January and capturing last month's French Open crown.

With the win at Roland Garros, Li Na completed her journey from a novelty to Grand Slam champion, a fairytale journey that pins China on the grand slam map.

(The short documentary about Li Na is a presentation of People's Daily Online, China's most authoritative and influential online publication.)