China’s fiery tennis superstar Li Na heads into next week’s US Open eyeing a second Grand Slam crown but with questions over her temperament mounting in Chinese media after two furious outbursts.
Winning the 2011 French Open title sealed Li’s place as the country’s tennis darling as 116 million people at home tuned in to watch her become Asia’s first Grand Slam singles champion.
But the world number six, now a veteran at 31, has developed a reputation as a prickly character in a nation where sports stars typically keep their emotions strictly in check after years in the rigid state sports training system.
After her second-round exit at the French Open and her quarter-final defeat at Wimbledon, Li turned on Wang Zijiang of official news agency Xinhua when he asked if she had a message for fans back home.
“I lost a game and that’s it. Do I need to get on my knees and kowtow to them? Apologise to them?” she snapped in Paris.
A month later at Wimbledon, he asked the same question again. “How dare he? Doesn’t he have any shame?” said Li, who trained as a journalist herself in her 20s.
Her reaction prompted widespread denunciations on China’s hugely popular microblogging sites. “Losing the game is OK, you can win it next time. What you really need to improve is your courtesy and behaviour,” said a poster with the username Dibayin.
Li, who reached the final of this year’s Australian Open, has developed an individualistic style not common in China since she opted out of government control in 2008, enabling her to choose her own coaches and keep most of her winnings.
Her supporters have spoken before of the intense pressure she faces as China’s only top tennis player, and her performance at tournaments is closely monitored by Chinese media, who are largely unfamiliar with dealing with athletes who confront aggressive questioning.
Nonetheless her comments would be unusual for Western sports stars, who are often mindful of their image and the commercial endorsements that depend on it.
Wang, a London-based sports reporter for Xinhua, said that her response had “shocked” him, and that she had “definitely overreacted”.
Li was such a prominent figure in China and so important to most media outlets that she could often choose which questions to answer, he added.
“Many can only ask questions which please her, and this allows Li Na to confront the media and gives her a feeling of looking down on them,” he said.
“Li Na has been spoiled in this media environment. When she answers to the media, she is not professional, she really is childish.
“And being faced with direct questions from Xinhua – whose purpose is not to gain attention and improve newspaper sales – her sensitive self-esteem cannot cope.”
Zhang Rongfeng, one of Xinhua’s top sports commentary writers, said Li had a “weakness of character”.
“When she wins a game, she has a better attitude and is nice to the media. But if she loses, she transfers her bad temper from the tennis court,” he said.
It is a far cry from the heroine-worship of 2011, when Li was praised as a pioneer for Chinese tennis after her victory at Roland Garros, widely considered to have helped the sport become the third most watched in the country.
She defied Chinese convention by getting a tattoo – a red rose – on her chest and earlier this year graced the cover of Time magazine, in which US tennis legend Chris Evert praised her as a “maverick”.
But her outspoken views have sparked controversy before, most notably when she claimed she was not “here for the country” in a tournament last year.
The “self v country” row played out on Chinese social media resulted in a widely reposted internet rumour that authorities in her hometown of Wuhan were to remove a bronze statue of her from the local “Walk of Fame”.
But some Chinese reporters say the media should respect Li’s personality.
“Both sides need to step back a little bit to see the picture here because Li Na is the one player we have who is capable of doing great in tournaments,” said Liu Renjie, who covers tennis for Sina, one of China’s top internet news portals, and has interviewed her on many occasions.
“Sometimes we need to maybe take it easy, and not put so much pressure or criticism on her so we can ease the tension.”