China gives Li Na ‘cold shoulder’ decade on from changing tennis
SHANGHAI: A decade ago, more than 110 million people tuned in from China to watch Li Na become the first Asian-born player to win a Grand Slam singles title, but now she is rarely seen on TV or in the country’s media.
Her big breakthrough for Chinese and Asian tennis at the 2011 French Open was followed by a second major at the Australian Open in 2014 before Li tearfully called it quits later that year.
Now 39, Li is only seen fleetingly and when she did receive some coverage earlier this year, it came in the form of strong criticism by a prominent newspaper allied to the ruling Communist Party.
These days the woman who stood out for her independent streak, chest tattoo and refusing to bow down to China’s state sports system cuts a muted figure, including eschewing social media.
A major film about her reportedly ended shooting in 2019, but it has failed to appear in China’s heavily censored cinemas. If it ever does, the Global Times says that people may “boycott” it.
“The athlete’s previous scandals have cast a shadow over her reputation,” said the nationalist newspaper in March, warning the film’s prospects at the box office are “grim” if it is ever screened.
The Global Times highlighted an incident in 2017 when it said that Li reacted to a sexual abuse scandal at a kindergarten by forwarding a cartoon on the Twitter-like Weibo of a demon with a rifle and clutching a child.
The haunting picture was purportedly drawn by a member of the Falun Gong, a spiritual movement banned in China and branded “a cult”.
Some took Li’s post as condemnation of China’s military because there were rumours, later dispelled, that the abuse was somehow related to the People’s Liberation Army.
Li explained on Weibo that, as a mother of two young children, her post was an “impulsive” reaction.
“Since the incident, Li has been widely criticised and given the cold shoulder by netizens,” said the Global Times.
Li has 22 million followers on Weibo but has not posted on there since July last year when she announced that she was to be an ambassador to China’s domestic tennis tour.
– ‘Too big a hat’ –
Li’s success failed to usher in a period of Chinese tennis glory.
There are no Chinese men or women in the current top 30 in the world and she remains the country’s only player to win a Grand Slam singles crown.
But as the French Open got under way this week, there was only passing mention at home of her historic feat at Roland Garros on June 4, 2011.
Indeed, the last time that Li gained widespread Chinese media coverage was in January when she trended on Weibo over claims that she was switching nationalities to South Korea.
Shanghai’s The Paper cited her as dismissing that as untrue, but the story fitted a long-time narrative that she is unpatriotic and has forgotten her roots.
Some of her detractors reference an interview she gave to The New York Times in 2013 in which she was quoted as saying: “When people say that I represent the nation, that is too big a hat for me to wear.”
Li, who comes from Wuhan, may simply have chosen to shun the limelight — she long had strained relations with Chinese media and talked previously of enjoying spending time with her young family.
The woman who ranks alongside Yao Ming and Olympic champion hurdler Liu Xiang as among her country’s finest sports people never was the typical Chinese sports star.
She controversially left the state-run sports system in 2008, which was seen by some in China as a betrayal.
But it enabled Li to choose her own coaches and keep most of her winnings — and ultimately brought Grand Slam success.
Ouyang Wensheng, a tennis commentator, called Li “an iconic figure in Chinese and Asian tennis”.
He said that her long-held plans for a tennis school have so far failed to materialise because of a lack of sponsors, but she “pays attention to the development of young Chinese players” and remains an inspiration to others.
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