The tennis star is more than a global sports icon—she inspires millions of Chinese as a symbol of independence and freedom
It’s a hazy Sunday afternoon, and we’re standing in a parched field off Beijing’s Second Airport Expressway. Next to a sewage ditch, couples in wedding dresses and tuxedos breathe in car exhaust while posing among wildflowers. It isn’t the most romantic of settings, but pastoral backdrops are hard to come by in China’s capital. Nearby, unbeknownst to the lovebirds, another photo shoot is taking place: Li Na, the world’s second-ranked women’s tennis player after the U.S.’s Serena Williams, is teetering on high heels, her hair styled into a kind of postcoital tease. The tennis champion tries to lean seductively against a car, but her attempt at a sexy pout keeps getting eclipsed by an irrepressible grin. Even the photographer giggles. Dust swirls. Still, the crew tries to cast the necessary scene in the world’s largest automotive market: an open road, a cherry red convertible, a gorgeous woman facing life on her terms.
In the twilight of her career, more than a quarter-century after she was forcibly recruited into China’s Soviet-style sports system, Li is finally free to be herself. Not coincidentally, at an age when most tennis stars have eased into retirement, the 32-year-old is playing the best tennis of her life. In January, at the Australian Open, she won her second Grand Slam. Her first, a 2011 win on the clay courts of the French Open, made Li the first Asian national to capture a Grand Slam singles title. Off the court, Li boasts some $40 million in endorsements, making her the second-highest-paid female athlete in the world (after Maria Sharapova), courtesy of brands aiming to score big in the China market. To think that just six years ago, she was little more than a pawn of the Chinese state, a burned-out, injury-plagued athlete on the brink of retirement. Only a break from the sports machine that created her would save Li and transform her into a Chinese—and global—icon.
There are 328,120 females in China who share the name Li Na. Most, like the tennis star, were born in the 1980s, a generation that is experiencing a drastically different People’s Republic from that of their parents and grandparents. China is no longer a nation of vast privation. Memories of war—both foreign-imposed and internal—have faded. Socialist values too have lost currency, as decidedly uncommunist market reforms catalyzed the greatest economic expansion in history.
Nevertheless, China is still ruled by a Communist Party that is determined to maintain its 65-year grip on power by stamping out dissent and encoding patriotism into the nation’s education system. It’s a tricky tautology: to love the country is to love the party. Anything less is potentially treasonous. This orthodoxy has stoked in some younger Chinese a rejection of conformity and of slavish loyalty to the state. Such challenges aren’t necessarily a grand political statement but a simple expression of individuality. When Li crashed out early in last year’s French Open, a reporter with Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, demanded to know what message she had for the Chinese people. It was the usual sop to national sentiment—Li was expected to apologize for her poor performance—but young Chinese can hold different notions of patriotism. The tennis star snapped back: “I lost a game and that’s it. Do I need to get on my knees and kowtow to them?”
The Chinese government’s subsequent response showed the threat it saw in Li’s brio—as well as the brittleness of its power. A furious editorial in the party’s mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, criticized Li’s “unchecked willfulness” and her apparently “insufferable” qualities. “As it becomes trendy to declare one’s individuality in this age, are star athletes justified to flaunt their personality any way they want?” sniffed the editorial. “Li Na should realize that it will not take too much time for the masses to abandon an athlete when they get tired of them.” But Li has 22.5 million followers on Chinese social media—more than double that of any American athlete. Not everyone agreed with the state’s criticism of China’s most famous active athlete. Online, Li’s fans jumped to her defense, including Li Chengpeng (no relation), one of China’s most trenchant social commentators. “Even a national leader cannot dare say he bears the whole country on his back,” he wrote last July. “Why does [the People’s Daily] want an athlete to bear it? For athletes, the best way to show patriotism is to win games, not to shout slogans.”
Li Na likes to joke that the brevity of her name in English—just four letters—makes her unique and easy to spot in a tennis draw. But there is also an everywoman quality to her, despite her prodigious earnings and even more awesome talent. She plays for herself; she makes her own choices. That is something that more and more young Chinese are doing. Some have chosen to abandon their homeland altogether, spooked by the corrosive by-products of China’s economic boom, like environmental pollution and rampant corruption. Nearly 300,000 Chinese now study in the U.S., and droves of rich Chinese are emigrating overseas. Those who stay at home aren’t afraid to speak up online through social-media networks that—even with government censorship—subvert the state’s attempts to control the narrative. Li, with her forthright manner and allergy to patriotic paeans, serves as their unlikely inspiration. “It is very important for Chinese to celebrate our individuality,” said Yuan Yulai, a crusading human-rights lawyer, on his social-media account. “By frankly sharing her innermost feelings, Li Na helps trigger more civic consciousness among Chinese people.”
China’s President Xi Jinping, who is slated to rule the nation until 2022, is trying to unite the People’s Republic’s 1.36 billion people with a communist-inflected slogan called the China Dream. What Xi means isn’t completely clear, but it appears he wants to link individual Chinese hopes to collective national glory. Chinese cities are plastered with China Dream billboards. Yet the government’s public relations campaign has fallen flat and elicited online derision. Instead, it is a tennis player’s redemptive tale that may best capture modern China’s aspirations.
Li symbolizes how a young Chinese can achieve personal success even after distancing herself from the party and state. Her willingness to assert herself endears her to the millions of Chinese searching for their unique voices in a collective society. During postmatch events, Li has taken to wearing a Nike shirt imprinted with the motto dare to aim higher than the sky. “‘Dare to make a breakthrough and dare to challenge all’ is my call for our young generation,” Li has said. “Self-transcendence is success.” The analogy Li uses comes from the sport she has played for 24 years. “Every return in tennis is different, every shot is a challenge to yourself,” she tells me during a brief stay in Beijing before heading to Europe for the clay-court season that culminates at Roland Garros in late May. “You have to make different judgments and choices every time. It’s a pleasure.” This, then, is the story of one Li Na out of 328,120—and the choices she made to escape an outdated system and forge her own path forward in the new China.
Li was 5 years old when it was decided for her that she would become a badminton player. Her father had played the popular sport before the Cultural Revolution made athletic ambitions frivolous. Three years later, a coach in her river-port hometown of Wuhan asked Li’s parents whether they would mind if their daughter grew dark from the sun—a stigma in fair-obsessed China. So it was that Li learned she would be switching to tennis. How much did she know about the sport? “Zero,” Li tells me. Her parents, unused to even the word tennis in Chinese, called her new vocation “fuzz ball.”
A couple of months later, Li became the youngest boarder at her state-run sports school. She spent one night at home a week and enjoyed no holidays. Later, Tuesday and Thursday mornings were reserved for studies; the rest of the time was for training drills. Because the school only had adult-size wooden rackets on offer, her palms were constantly blistered. Repeated falls on the sand-covered courts turned her knees into a seething, infected mess. One of her few delights was how the school switched between red- and blue-hued antiseptic to treat her wounds. “Changing the colors made it more interesting,” she wrote in her memoir, Li Na: My Life. “It’s adorable how simple a child’s life is.” She hated tennis.
For nine years, Li’s coach was a martinet named Yu Liqiao. Throughout her training, Li never heard a single word of praise. Yu called her stupid, shoved her and constantly yelled in her face. When Li’s father died of a heart ailment while the 14-year-old was playing a tournament in southern China, Yu neglected to inform her young charge for days. “All of the players lived in fear,” Li wrote in her memoir. Carlos Rodríguez, an Argentine who has served as Li’s coach since 2012 and once led Justine Henin to seven Grand Slams, decries a Chinese sports “system in which you’re never good enough.”
By her late teens, Li was ranked No. 1 in China and playing in overseas tournaments. Rodríguez lauds “her incredible instinct for survival.” But she suffered from a menstrual disorder, and the treatment was hormone injections to which she was allergic. Her team’s leader, though, was adamant she suffer the shots in order to compete in the 2002 Asian Games. At just 20 years old, Li knew she couldn’t let tennis “ruin my health and happiness.”
The year before that, an official decision was abruptly made to split her up from her longtime mixed-doubles partner, Jiang Shan—then her boyfriend and now her husband—in order to better her native Hubei province’s chances at the 2001 National Games. This competition was considered far more important than any international championship. “We were human beings, not pawns on a chessboard,” Li wrote in the memoir. The Hubei squad eventually prevailed in the national competition. But afterward six of the eight provincial teammates quit. “We were all heartbroken,” she reflected. “We really couldn’t endure it anymore.”
Raised by the state since childhood, and discouraged from forming friendships with foreign counterparts, Chinese athletes tend to live a life apart on the international circuit. Li is different. She expresses herself bluntly in English. On court, her flashes of temper make her seem human, not some emotionless robot playing for national glory. Her sense of humor also charms. At the Australian Open victory ceremony this year, she thanked her agent for making her rich.
In postmatch interviews, Li has pointedly declined to express gratitude to her nation for its role in developing her career. For some Chinese, this lapse is unforgivable. The state made Li Na. Provincial scouts found her and placed a tennis racket in her hand. Without them, she might be a mediocre badminton coach in some interior Chinese city. How could she be so ungrateful as to not mumble a few patriotic words? But Li’s popularity continues to climb. More than 115 million people in China watched her 2011 French Open victory. There’s a reason the likes of Nike, Mercedes-Benz and Samsung have paid her so lavishly to become their poster girl. Yao Bo, a popular online commentator with 1 million followers, says he doesn’t like tennis, but he posted his support of Li earlier this year after she again failed to thank China after a tennis triumph: “What’s the point of thanking the motherland? The motherland is nothing without her people.”
The adulation discomfits Li. “I can’t carry a nation and certainly can’t represent a whole country,” she wrote in her autobiography. In Beijing, she tells me more about her complicated relationship with members of the Chinese media, who push her to praise her homeland by rote. “When I achieve really good results, they think, ‘Oh, she’s Chinese,’” says Li. “But if my result is not good, then they say, ‘Oh, Li Na, she’s this, she’s that.’”
Rodríguez, who runs a successful tennis academy in Beijing, scoffs at doubts over Li’s love of country. “Whenever she has a moment free, she returns home to China,” he says. “Isn’t that the purest patriotism, to choose to come home?” Li has taken two proper holidays her whole life. One was to a beach in southern China. Not Hawaii, not Bali, not St.-Tropez. “Love is not something you have to say with words from your mouth,” Li tells me, of the debate over her patriotism. “I use my actions to prove my love.”
Charging the Net
In 2002, Li, then in Beijing slaving away as a member of the national team, took an altogether unexpected action. Shocked by the order to force hormone shots on her, and fed up with the official meddling in her romantic relationship, she filled out an early-retirement form. She left the application in her dorm room, along with her racket, and returned home to Wuhan. “The taste of freedom was so sweet,” she later recalled in her book. Jiang had retired too, and the pair started studying at a Wuhan university, both majoring in journalism.
In January 2004, after a Chinese tennis official promised her freedom to “play for yourself,” Li returned to the team that had been her family for so many years. Yet Li was still a self-described “camel” among a flock of lambs. By 2006 she was ranked 21 in the world, but her knees—scarred from all those years on sandy courts—began to plague her. Later, surgery was needed, and in 2008, Li booked a date in Germany. A day before the operation, the national team demanded she return home. Surgery would have to wait, her team leaders intoned, because Li might not be well enough to compete in the Beijing Olympics. The 2008 Summer Games were to be a crowning moment during which China would flex the muscle of its state athletic machine—and confirm the nation’s status as a rising global power. (China topped the gold-medal rankings for the first time ever in Beijing, beating the U.S. 51-36.)
Li eventually underwent the surgery, recovering in time for the Beijing Games. “It’s hard to describe that sense of elation,” Li remembered. “Every Chinese person must have swelled with pride.” In front of deafening home crowds, she dispatched higher-ranked players like Venus Williams. The semifinal was against Russia’s Dinara Safina, whom Li had beaten in their previous two encounters. But during crucial points in the second set, Chinese fans kept yelling out their advice and commentary—a tennis taboo. The umpire tried to hush them to no avail. Though the match was within reach, Li lost her temper. “Shut up!” she screamed in English at the Chinese crowd. She lost the match and hopes of an Olympic medal on home turf.
After the Olympics, Li—all of 26 years of age—contemplated retirement again. Then came a lightning bolt from Chinese tennis officials. The top four female players would be allowed to “fly solo,” as the media soon dubbed their release from the state’s clutches. They could dictate their own schedules, assemble their own support teams and keep all but 8% of their revenues and 12% of match bonuses. Before leaving the state system, Li had to fork over 65% of her earnings to the government, in return for Chinese cadres paying for and determining most aspects of her life. It was a form of the “iron rice bowl” of lifetime employment that once dominated the People’s Republic. But that socialist system was shattered when China unleashed market reforms. In 2009, Chinese tennis finally began to catch up with the rest of society.
The transition was disorienting. For the first time ever, Li and her husband had to book and pay for their own air tickets and hotels. Since Chinese need visas to travel to most countries, they slogged through endless paperwork. In order to interview potential coaches and trainers, the pair had to learn English. With their new language skills, they finally integrated into the normal tennis circuit, bursting the isolating bubble that kept them separate for so long. As she mixed it up on the Women’s Tennis Association tour, Li began captivating players and fans alike with her self-deprecating wit and megawatt smile. I first met Li in 2005 when she was training seven hours a day with the national team. I never saw her smile. Now it’s almost as if her natural expression is a grin. She chats about South Korean soap operas, karaoke and her favorite nail-polish hues. “Compared to before, she looks totally different,” says Kathy Duan, a local rep for Li’s management agency, IMG. “Before, she looked much more like a man. Now she is so pretty, so feminine.”
Li’s knees still bother her, and the state has maintained some control over her movements. In 2009, as she hovered on the brink of entering the top 10, she asked the head of the Hubei sports bureau whether she could miss the National Games in order to undergo another surgery. His response, as Li remembers it? “The world’s top 10 is not nearly as important as a National Games championship.” She hobbled through one opening set against an unheralded opponent and didn’t win a game. Now she has amassed enough individual power that, last year, she was able to skip the national contest.
Banishing the Past
Rodríguez, as respected for his psychological acumen as his grueling training regimens, has tried to reassemble Li’s tennis soul. For all her commanding ground strokes and surgically precise backhands, Li was infamous for her erratic play: inexplicable meltdowns, constant flirting with retirement and a crippling lack of confidence. “I asked her, What are you playing for?” Rodríguez tells me. “You need to play for yourself, not as revenge to the Chinese system.” On Rodríguez’s advice, Li finally faced her demons and returned to Wuhan to tell her old coach Yu how damaged she felt after nine years of negativity. The meeting ended after 15 minutes. But walking away, Li felt a wave of relief roll over her. “Looking at the sky,” she recalled, “it was the first time I noticed that the summer sky in Wuhan is very blue.”
Rodríguez is changing up Li’s game by encouraging her to add side- and topspin to the ball. He wants her to come to the net more, to take more chances. Li is eager to learn anew. All this speculation about whether she’s about to retire frustrates her. Yes, one day she’d like to “follow my husband” as he pursues his dream of developing men’s tennis in China. (The highest-ranked Chinese man is 194th in the ATP tour.) But right now, Li is in the best physical condition of her life, and her star power is at its brightest. Millions of Chinese girls want to be like her. The French Open, where she won her first Grand Slam, beckons again this month. The little girl—that scabby-kneed kid who was forced to chop her hair so short, she was often mistaken for a boy—has flowered. She’s got a multimillion-dollar contract with Mercedes-Benz. The road is wide open.
—with reporting by Chengcheng Jiang / Beijing