The Story of Li Na and the Chinese Patriots

BY ROLAND SOONG
Jan 31, 2011

Li Na made history by becoming the first Chinese to reach a Grand Slam final, but the victory is hers, not China’s.

373 Rebel Li Na succeeds by defying the Chinese system (Photo from www.news.com.au)

 

Top Chinese tennis player Li Na was unable to win her first Grand Slam title, but she still set history as the first Chinese to reach a Grand Slam final. As Yao Ming and Liu Xiang are still recuperating and/or not in top form, Li Na has become the next inspiring sports figure.

Yet, Li Na has been frustrating the Chinese patriotic sports fans. On various public occasions, she has openly scolded them for their ignorance.

 

Li Na’s speech at the Australian Open award ceremony

 

In her speech at the award ceremony of the Australian Open, she teased her husband/coach and expressed her eternal love for him; she thanked her sponsor. She had also said previously that she played tennis for the prize money and credit cards. She never thanked the motherland, the Communist Party or the sports officials, even though the latter are enthusiastically including Li Na's accomplishments as theirs.

At the Australian Open final, there was a scene which I don't know whether to laugh or cry about. After Li Na's serve was broken in the second set, she went over to the British umpire and said something. Afterwards it was disclosed that she had said: "Can you tell the Chinese not to teach me how to play tennis?" According to media reports, Li Na was annoyed by certain Chinese spectators calling out "Take her out" "Beat her" and "Calm down" at inappropriate moments. Therefore she asked the referee to intercede. Later she complained about people using camera flashlights during the match.

After the match, Li Na said: "I am curious as to why once I got into the final, so many 'Chinese coaches' began to teach me how to play tennis from the courtside? During the match many Chinese fans wanted me to win but they choose to do it by 'teaching me how to play tennis'."

The frank and candid Li Na was also annoyed by the cheering of Chinese patriots and she angrily yelled "Shut up!"

Before that moment, Li Na held an advantage over her rival. But from that moment, the match turned in favour of her rival. This was not a unique occasion. At the Beijing Olympics more than a year ago, the frank and candid Li Na was also annoyed by the cheering of Chinese patriots and she angrily yelled "Shut up!" and that was controversial.

We may say that Li Na is not psychologically fortified. She can be annoyed by outside interference and lose her composure during matches. But we also know that tennis is a refined sport which used to belong to the elite. At the world-class tennis competitions, the quality of the audience is an important part of the sport. When two foreign players play each other, we clearly see that the audience can cheer during down time, but they stop as soon as a player gets ready to serve. This works with clockwork precision. This is tradition, this is culture, this is tennis.

There are many Chinese immigrants in Australia today, including many Chinese patriotic sports fans for whom cheering for Chinese sportsmen/women is an expression of their patriotism. But they have not learned the etiquette and respect in spectatorship and they have not learned the spirit and culture of this sport. For them, these things are not important. They couldn't tell the difference between tennis and badminton anyway. The only thing that matters is to cheer China on because they are proud patriots. Time and again, their patriotic spirit only became laughing stock in sports.

Li Na, who does not thank the motherland, has been setting records. Her progress is the result of a sharp conflict within the Chinese sports system. China has been traditionally weak in tennis, which is part of the national sports system like the other sports. Previously, the players were selected, trained and provided for by the state and they compete for the country. The most important international targets for the Chinese tennis players are the Davis Cup, the Federation Cup and other events. There are also the Olympics, the Asian Games, the National Games, etc. The open tennis tournaments and Grand Slam events were just training matches (that is, if they managed to qualify). As a result, Chinese tennis was insignificant in the world.

Even in Asia, China was not the top. The Chinese people do not realise that the Grand Slam events represent the pinnacles of the spot. When they did qualify on those rare occasions, they were usually knocked out in the first round. When they wanted a breakthrough, they concentrated on the women's doubles in the Olympics because other people don't deem that to be important.

At that time, Chinese tennis revolved around the collective team training. In this century, several of the top female players began to struggle to go solo. Going solo means that the player does not belong to any team; instead she chooses her own coach, she arranges her own training; she makes up her own competition schedule; she pays her own way; she retains her own winnings.

Their efforts represented a challenge to the state sports system, but they were also the most basic ingredients in the sport of tennis. At first, their efforts were denied. Gradually they obtained tacit permission. Through their own courage and efforts, they changed their own fates and broke the ice.

Li Na had shown her extraordinary talents since youth, but her career was bottled up by the state system.

After the 2008 Olympics, several top players (Li Na, Zheng Jie, Peng Shuai and others) were finally officially accepted as solo players. While a significant portion of their winnings go back to the state, they were truly liberated from the system. Over the past two years, they made the Grand Slam final four, they ranked among the top 10 in the world and they won important tournaments. Compared to talented foreign players who enjoyed all the advantages from young age, they had to struggle to get their way. Unfortunately, Li Na and Zheng Jie are fairly old by now. If they had gone solo 10 years ago and left the fetters of the state system, they may be at the top of the world today.