China's most popular sportswoman, and the world's third-highest paid female athlete, is wary of adulation from Chinese fans and state-run media.
Anyone who saw Chinese tennis star Li Na on Saturday – playful, vivacious, and irreverent as she made her victory speech after the Australian Open women’s final – would not have recognized the woman who returned home yesterday.
Stony faced, she pushed away the official bouquets thrust at her on arrival at Wuhan airport. Later, at a welcome ceremony organized by the local government, Ms. Li showed not a glimmer of a smile as she dutifully shook hands with Communist party dignitaries.
And when her childhood coach, a notorious martinet, hugged her in congratulation she simply stood there woodenly, arms at her side, looking deeply uncomfortable. Hard as Chinese officialdom is trying to snuggle up to the country’s most popular athlete, hoping that some of her gold dust will rub off on them, Li Na, China's most famously headstrong athlete, is having none of it.
She has even said she would refuse any invitation to attend the televised Chinese New Year Gala, the authorities’ annual feel good marathon of folk songs and comic turns. She would rather spend the evening with her family in Wuhan, the capital of the central province of Hubei, where she grew up.
Li Na broke out of the Chinese state sports system in 2008, winning the right to choose her own coaches, set her own schedule and keep most of her earnings rather than hand them over to the China Tennis Association. Only a handful of other Chinese athletes have been able to do that, “flying solo” as the Chinese term has it.
Though Li Na charmed the rest of the world with her speech in Melbourne, thanking her agent for making her rich and her husband for “fixing my drinks, fixing my racquets,” the fact that she pointedly did not thank her country drew a lot of comment here.
“Li Na’s success could not have happened without her experience on the national team,” insisted a commentary in the state-run Xinhua news agency. “It would have been very hard for Li Na to have got this far without the country’s sponsorship.”
That may be true, but Li Na’s fans don’t all see it that way. “The [national] sports system spends tons of our money but Li Na won without spending any of it,” commented one micro-blogger. “So the country should thank Li Na.”
It does; Chinese fans and the state-run media were ecstatic this weekend. But the object of their adulation does not want to feel that she owes them too much.
“When people say that I represent the nation, that is too big a hat for me to wear,” she told The New York Times magazine last year.
“I really, truly think that I am just an athlete,” she added. “I can represent nothing but myself.”
Li Na broke through by winning the French Open in 2011, becoming the first Asian to win a Grand Slam singles tournament. She is the most popular athlete in China with 22 million fans on Sina Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, and over the past few years she has signed sponsorship and endorsement deals worth more than $40 million, making her the third best paid female athlete in the world. No wonder that in her Melbourne speech she thanked her agent.