Fresh from her Australian Open championship victory, tennis star Li Na received a hero’s welcome in her hometown of Wuhan city, Hubei province on Tuesday.
But she also arrived to a state press and central government aggrandising the Chinese athletic system for producing a star such as Li – despite the fact she clinched last weekend’s women’s championship title several years after leaving the national team.
Li, now worth an estimated US$40 million after her win, was greeted at the airport by the Hubei vice-governor on Monday and was later given a cheque for 800,000 yuan (HK$1.02 million) by the provincial party boss Li Hongzhong, who praised her for bringing glory to the homeland.
Li, 31, is the oldest since 1973 to win the women’s championship.
The official Xinhua News Agency said that Li Na owed her success to her experience on the national team, although the grand-slam athlete quit the state sports system in 2008.
In a piece titled “Why Did Li Succeed?”, Xinhua credits years of state training for Li’s triumph. “The country took care of Li and cultivated her. The state is her sponsor,” the article said.
In Li’s victory speech last weekend – hailed by social media users as the “best victory speech ever” – she thanked her agent, husband and her legion of fans, but left out her country.
The tennis celebrity, considered a bit of a renegade for sporting a tattoo, is adored by her fans for succeeding on her own terms.
The baseliner joined China’s National Tennis Team in 1997, but opted out in 2002 to finish her studies and again in 2008 to set up her own training team. As of 2008, she no longer receives financial support from Beijing.
The notoriously strict state system has been criticised by sportsmen and coaches alike for its rigorous and inflexible programme which fails to cater to the individual needs of athletes.
Along with Li, professional women’s tennis players Peng Shuai, Zheng Jie, and Yan Zi have all left the system to pursue a solo career, which allows them the freedom to pick their coaches and to receive a greater share of their winnings.
Li sparked controversy and headlines back home in 2011 when she said, “Don’t say I’m doing this for my country, I’m doing it for myself.”
Today Li is generating headlines again not just for her Australian title for turning down a once-in-a-lifetime chance to appear on China’s Spring Festival telethon on state broadcaster CCTV. “I just want to spend Chinese New Year at home,” she was quoted saying.