While the China Open started on Monday in Beijing, someone is missing: the local legend, Li Na, who retired on the 19th of September because of recurring physical problems. So how can Chinese tennis continue its development without the player who initiated it? Tentative answer between soft power and Yao Ming.
"The leader of Chinese tennis made a new miracle"; "Li Na is making History"; "A big boost to a sport that is already growing rapidly in China." On the 5th of June 2011, the Chinese press was in turmoil. A Chinese tennis player had won a Grand Slam tournament for the first time. Her name? Li Na, then aged 28 and victorious at Roland Garros. "I was playing badminton since the age of 6,” she says. “But after two years, my coach decided that I wasn't good enough and told me that I should try tennis. He had to show my family what a tennis court looked like, because at the time, it wasn't a very popular sport here." But that was before: the Parisian semi-finals of Li Na against Francesca Schiavone, broadcasted live on the national channel CCTV, attracted almost 25 million viewers. In a survey conducted in by the Chinese Internet giant sina.com, 44% of 100,000 Internet users who answered said that Li Na's victory made them cry. In an open letter, Wei Shen, professor of International Affairs at the University of UNAM, said that "this success initiated a new wave of national pride in his homeland, and a great interest in tennis." A discipline that now mourns his legend. On the 19th of September, Li Na, 32 and sixth player in the world, officially retired because of an ailing knee. After the emotion, the reality will soon have to take over: what future for Chinese tennis, orphan of its locomotive?
« It was a real mess »
For behind Li Na, the succession is not fully ready yet. Even if in the WTA rankings, three Chinese women (Peng Shuai, Zheng Jie and Zhang Shuai) are among the world's top 100, you have to go down the 193th place to find their ATP counterpart, Ze Zhang. "They are not very strong in their head,” according to Li Na. “They think that being the 300th in the world is actually OK. They must believe in themselves more and be more ambitious." Guillaume Peyre, former coach of Richard Gasquet and now national coach with the Chinese Tennis Association (CTA), doesn't say any different: « they are lazy; you always need to be behind them. When I arrived in 2009, the average level of the boys was around the 800-900th place in the world. Even for the best. I realized that there was everything to do: from training, to planning, to the formation of the coaches, it was a real mess. They were only doing volume, volume, volume. They were rough. And that's sometimes can demotivate players very early on. They make them work a lot at the beginning and after they are burned out, they always want to rest. »
However, the immensity of the pool and the 'special' policies implemented by the federation sometimes allow to compensate for these shortcomings. And Guillaume Peyre to add: "There will always be female players in China who will enter the Top 100 as Chinese officials have favoured women's tennis because of Li Na's performance. For example, in the provinces, sparring partners of the girls are the best boys. It's still a big advantage." Still, at only 20 years old, Li Na gave up those good training conditions and left the fold of the Chinese federation. Her concern? That the best players were required to give 65% of their earnings to the government (over 3 million dollars according to the WTA), who in turn is paying for their travels, training and equipment. A system based on the fact that female players agree to focus on the doubles. At that time, the government was working on China’s breakthrough in tennis, and they were focusing on the women's doubles, where they thought they could be successful more quickly, especially at the Beijing Olympics. They were rewarded with Sun Tiantian and Li Ting in Athens ten years ago. Two Grand Slam titles followed for Zheng Jie and Yan Zi in Melbourne and Wimbledon in 2006, But Li Na knew that her future was in singles: « I didn’t play tennis for two years. I wanted to play in singles, but at the 2000 Olympics, they wanted me to play the doubles,” she remembers. “I had to play the doubles and only after that, I could try and play in singles. I thought that I wasn't given the opportunity to become a good player in singles." The breaking point happened in 2011, when Li Na didn't appreciate the reward of the CTA after reaching the final of the Australian Open: an invitation to the restaurant. To which she would have answered: "That's it?".
« Li Na was not eternal »
Nevertheless, Li Na took advantage of a special status allowing her to leave the country to conquer the world. For others, the ambition of an international destiny was much more complex. Meaning: "In China, the education of a child is extremely expensive. The only solution to get rid of this financial burden is to entrust them to a school in the province. And then, the school is free to decided of the child's future: if he's going to be an athlete, a math teacher or a doctor.” According to Guillaume Peyre, “there's no choice. Basically, every player belongs to his school and his team. It's like that for everybody, except for Li Na, who was fortunate enough to get 'her passport back', as they say, thanks to her good results." In addition, opening its borders and investing in sports like tennis is important for the image of China. "It is essential for soft power,” says Wei Shen. “It's not surprising that China has produced some superstars in recent years: Yao Ming (basketball, ed), Liu Xiang (110-meter hurdles, ed) and obviously Li Na, superstars seen internationally as 'Made in China’. The victories of these athletes have also benefited from China's strategy 'of globalization’, by sending its athletes to train abroad, especially in the United US and in Europe and recruiting coaches and top players in China. Li Na has spent a lot of time training abroad and her coach was indeed from Denmark."
Few countries have invested as much money as China to develop the sport. In the 80s, the country started to open its doors to foreign investment, but also started to invest heavily in talented athletes. Tennis is a perfect illustration: according to the WTA, less than a million people were practicing tennis in China before the sport was introduced as an official sport at the 1988 Olympics. Today, the Government believes that about 130 million Chinese are interested in tennis and 14 million play as amateurs, slightly more than twice of France... In 2013, according to a study conducted by Tom Cannon, an expert in sports and finance and a teacher at the University of Liverpool, this new sector generates 4 billion dollars annually. A significant financial windfall, mostly due to two events now major on the world tour: the Shanghai Rolex Masters and the China Open that is taking place this week in Beijing. "China will be a key country of tennis in the years to come, a must" says Guillaume Peyre. Before demystify it: "Li Na paved the way for tennis in China, but her retirement will not end it. Anyway, we knew that she was going to retire eventually. Li Na was not eternal."