NEW YORK After a tough quarterfinal win this week at the U.S. Open, Chinese tennis star Li Na was asked how proud was she to become the first Chinese player, man or woman, to make the semifinals of the Open.
“You know, I always try to be the first one,” she said with a smile, “I was really proud for myself.”
As China’s premier tennis star, and one of the country’s wealthiest and most popular athletes of any sport, Li’s entire tennis career has been defined by firsts.
Foremost among her firsts was her 2011 win at the French Open, which catapulted Li into the stratosphere of athlete endorsement deals. Other firsts include making the finals of the Australian Open in 2011 and 2013, and now the U.S. Open semifinals in 2013.
But Li’s reach has gone far beyond the sport, as evidenced by her placement this year in Time magazine’s ranking of the world’s 100 most influential people.
In an essay for the Time 100 list, American tennis legend Chris Evert called Li a maverick who has helped women’s tennis explode in Asia.
“When she smiles, everyone melts. She’s such a breath of fresh air. And like Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova before her, Li Na has transcended her sport.”
Li is credited with inspiring interest in the sport among millions of young people in Asia, which will host eight professional women’s tournaments in 2014 - compared to just two five years ago.
“She has become iconic now in China,” Max Eisenbud, Li’s agent at IMG, said in an interview after her 2011 French Open win. “She has broken down a lot of barriers. She was the first Chinese player in the top 50, then the top 40, 30, 20, first one in the top 10, first one in the finals of a Grand Slam.”
Fans of the game know Li for a zany sense of humor that shines through her fractured English. In post-match interviews, she regularly ribs her good-natured husband (and former coach), saying his snoring keeps her awake at nights and that she ignores his coaching advice. She’s also seen as something of a rebel for her tattoos, which include a flower on her upper left sternum.
In the two years since her history-making French Open win, Li’s endorsements have swelled to an estimated $40 million - making her the third highest compensated female athlete in any sport, after Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams. This is in addition to her $11 million in career prize money to date.
She is also one of China biggest celebrities, with more than 21 million followers on the Twitter-like Weibo network.
In an interview with the New York Times, the chief executive of the Women’s Tennis Association, Stacey Allaster, said Li’s success has been instrumental in growing women’s tennis in Asia - and the rest of the world.
“If the Williams sisters had the greatest impact on the first decade of this century,” said Allaster, “then I would say, without a doubt, that Li Na will be the most important player of this decade.”
Li downplays her impact on the sport in China, saying she’s just doing her job to play good tennis.
When pressed about the pressures of becoming a role model to millions, Li admitted that it had been a rough transition since her 2011 breakthrough at the French. Here’s what she said on the subject in an interview after her Aug. 26 Open match:
“I just doing my job to play good tennis. But after these two years I feeling is not only about what I should do, you know, because sometimes if you training on the court it’s not only for the match. If you’re training, so many people watch what you do. So you really have to prepare for yourself, you know. Maybe if you say something bad or do something wrong the children, say, Oh, look, she do this. Also, I feeling this is not good for the improve tennis.
“I think before two or three years ago I cannot hung in there because I was feeling maybe I was crash because of the pressure. But now if you student of life, I have to learn every day.”
For her reward at excelling, Li now gets to face American juggernaut Serena Williams in Friday’s semifinal. Williams has been playing unparalleled tennis this week, and seems on a mission to capture her fifth U.S. Open singles title. But Li was undaunted by the prospect of playing the World No.1.
“I mean, if you only think about what opponent doing, of course you already lose the match before you come to the court. For tennis you have to figure out what you have to do on the court, what you should do. Yeah.”