Sporting greatness is about more than winning trophies. Li Na claimed only her second tennis grand slam crown at the Australian Open at the weekend, but she is already one of the sport's most loved figures. Her sportsmanship, humour, determination and maverick ways make her an icon and inspiration to legions of players and fans. But perhaps her greatest achievement is helping bridge the divide between China and the West.
Li's string of firsts has been the driving force behind an explosion of interest in the sport in mainland China. In 2004, she was the first Chinese player to win a Women's Tennis Association title; two years later at Wimbledon, she was the first player from the country to get to a grand slam quarter-final; then, in 2011, the first to make it to a grand slam final (the Australian Open); and later that year, at the French Open, the first Chinese player to win a grand slam. China now has 15 million players and tens of millions across the country watch her on television whenever she takes to the court; it is exposure that officials at home and internationally see as crucial to tennis' future. Such interest is put single-handedly down to Li, whose 22 million followers on weibo attest to her popularity.
Notably, she has also been a trail-blazer in China for sport in general. Her splitting from the state-run system in 2008 to chart her own future gave her not only financial control, but also opportunities she would not otherwise have had. With confidence came the self-assuredness to take on the mainland media, which can be brutally critical of athletic performances. Her subsequent successes have given other athletes the courage to take their careers into their own hands.
Beyond sport, though, Li is increasingly taking on a role like that of an ambassador. Her charisma, courage and charm have struck a chord with many in the West. That gives her powers well beyond the tennis court to bring together cultures that don't always understand one another. Li's latest win moves her a step closer to becoming a tennis great, and it also helps to educate and build trust.