Harbinger of a renaissance in tennis

PUBLISHED : Monday, 06 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 06 June, 2011, 12:00am


First there was Yao Ming. Then it was Liu Xiang. Now we can add Li Na to the pantheon of athletic greats from China in the 21st century. The extraordinary match on Saturday propelled the tennis player to No 4 in the world. But to tens of millions of her mainland fans, she is already No 1.

Her grand slam triumph in Paris is especially bittersweet, as it was achieved on clay, a surface she had abhorred. It is not only a personal victory, but a breakthrough for Chinese tennis. Unlike badminton, a sport she was first trained in when a child, tennis is not a 'national' game. Indeed, it is still seen by many as Western. That should now change.

A great athletic achievement such as this is testament to the talent and perseverance of the player, but it is inevitable that fans will always cheer for the champion from their home country. There is always an element of benign nationalism in sport.

Li is the product of a state-run athletic regime that focuses on discipline and intense training from a very young age. But it's her personality and charisma that propel her to stardom. She is famous for being demanding, even difficult. She has great charisma and a commanding presence, on and off the court. The tattooed rose on her chest is a symbol of her own individuality.

Li's success stems from her refusal to be shackled by the rigid mainland sports system. But it must be acknowledged that it was also fundamental reform within that system that has allowed more talented athletes to break away. Gone were the days when mainland athletes were great in technique but devoid of personality.

Hopefully, Li's career best will herald a renaissance in the sport on the mainland.