'Beware the Tiger Mum factor'
Don't try and copy me - that was the blunt advice issued by homecoming grand slam heroine Li Na to her legions of young Chinese fans yesterday.
The 29-year-old is the centre of attention following her ground-breaking French Open win last month against 2010 winner Francesca Schiavone.
But she said she is concerned the hype may lead to tennis mania and see children forced into taking up the sport by so-called pushy 'Tiger Mum' parents.
Speaking exclusively to the South China Morning Post in Beijing, she said: 'I know after my French Open victory more and more children in China want to play tennis. But [parents] have to make sure their children pick up the games for themselves, not for the family. So children have to have interest in the sport first, and then have the dream to win, and then keep going.'
She pleaded: 'Don't try and copy other people. Don't try and copy me. Believe in your dreams and believe in yourself.'
Right-hander Li has become the latest mainland sporting sensation following in the footsteps of 110-metre hurdler Liu Xiang and NBA basketball legend Yao Ming.
Her win in Paris was watched by an estimated 116 million mainland fans, many of whom admire her as much for her maverick, free-spirited personality as they do for for her blistering tennis.
The often outspoken star's career has bloomed since she turned her back on the mainland's rigid government-run sports training system in 2008.
But when asked if other fledgling players should consider opting out of the government's quest for international sporting glory, the Hubei star joked: 'You should not ask me such dangerous questions.'
Looking fit and relaxed and wearing a classy dress in her favourite black colour, she added: 'I'm not interested in what the government thinks and it's not my business if players decide to opt out. I only care about what I should do after each tournament. I am only a tennis player and all I can do is focus on my play on the court.'
Sceptics complain the strict government sports system and obsession with Olympic dominance stunts the development of China's young sporting hopes, leading to one-hit-wonders in the marquee commercial sports such as tennis, golf, soccer and basketball.
After her landmark grand slam title at Roland Garros, many pundits declared the win marked the birth of China as a tennis power.
But she came crashing to earth two weeks later at the sport's showcase tournament, Wimbledon, beaten in the second round by lesser-known German Sabine Lisicki.
Some of her harsher media critics have speculated she has peaked and will soon retire. But she laughed this off. 'I have no thought of retiring,' said Li. 'The US Open is my next target for this year, and next year will be the London 2012 Olympics, which will be my last. I made it into the semis in Beijing but I want to do better next year,' said the star.
The Hubei government presented Li on Monday with an award and a US$94,000 cash prize for making her home province proud.
She refused to be drawn on her net worth, but after five WTA titles and a string of other tournament wins, her winning total is believed to be more than US$6.4 million.
However, she did say when she does call it quits, she will invest her savings in training the hopes of the future - her way. 'When I do retire, I won't start a tennis club. I hope to start an academy where young Chinese players can come and play and train and go to [academic] school.
'If at 18 they believe they are good enough to go professional, or instead want to go university, then that will be up to them,' she said.