A few years ago, I went to southern China to meet the then unheralded but soon to be celebrated members of China’s women’s tennis program. The girls—they really felt like girls, not women, given how sheltered they were growing up in China’s cloistered state sports system—were giggly, shy and excited to have a member of the international media paying attention to them. Most had been recruited out of elementary school as badminton players, and they now played tennis because one day local coaches informed them that they would be switching over to this foreign sport. Almost none started playing out of affection for the sport; they had to endure seven hours of practice a day at their government-sponsored tennis base in Jiangmen city.
As I chatted with a clutch of tennis prodigies—including the women’s doubles pair of Zheng Jie and Yan Zi, who went on to win the first ever Chinese grand slam title at the Australian Open in 2006—I saw another Chinese tennis player stroll by. She was decidedly not part of the group. This was Li Na, who on June 4 became the first ever Chinese to capture a grand slam single’s title when she triumphed at the French Open against defending champion Francesca Schiavone of Italy 6-4, 7-6 (0). Most remarkably, Li made tennis history after breaking away from the Chinese sports system, which even as it churns out world-class athletes also tends to drain them of individuality and any sense of passion for the sport in which they have triumphed.
Li, with her tattoos and dyed hair, is regularly referred to in China as a rebel. Yet she’s hardly a Jennifer Capriati or other tennis wild child with a drug problem or nightclub habit. One of her biggest revolts was to have, gasp, married while still playing professional sports. (Most Chinese athletes aren’t allowed to date at all, much less marry, lest a personal entanglement distract them from the goal of bringing glory to the motherland.) But even when I first met Li in late 2005, she was already a breed apart. For one thing, the now 29-year-old was older than the other rising Chinese tennis stars, and she carried herself with the confidence of a woman not a girl. She didn’t automatically defer to what the coaches said. I remember an eye-roll or two at the dutiful patriotic mantras spouted by a younger teammate. Even her tennis, with her commanding groundstrokes, contrasted with the terrier-style of play that tends to be championed by the Chinese national team coaches.
Officials at the Chinese Tennis Association (CTA) now hint that they let Li break away three years ago as part of a pilot program called “Fly Alone,” because they sensed they might be holding her back. Perhaps. But that would have been an unusually forward-looking move for a Chinese sports entity mostly run by bureaucrats who have never swatted a tennis ball in their lives. It’s also possible (and even likely) that Li presented the CTA with a quiet threat: keeping confining me, and I’ll quit this sport and China will never get to bask in the glory of my accomplishments.
Li, who is set to become the world No. 4, had a track record to back her up: in 2002 she left the national team for a couple years because she so chafed at the strictures of the Chinese sports system. Even though she had been selected as a tennis player by government coaches at the age of nine (after dutifully sweating it out as a kid badminton player for a couple years before that), Li had no interest in a life where officials mandated everything from the exact hour of her mealtimes to the selection of her roommate. For even as the Soviet-modeled Chinese athletic system creates champions, it also can also compromise careers. Zheng, for instance, had a lightning run when she shared in the Australian Open and Wimbledon women’s doubles victories in 2006. But then she began underwhelming on the circuit, particularly in singles competition, as a result of the constant physical stress her body was undergoing at the behest of her state coaches. After a first-round exit at the French Open in 2007, Zheng sobbed that the pain from an ankle injury was incredibly intense, but that her coaches still forced her to play. (Zheng, who again made history at Wimbledon in 2008 when she became the first Chinese to reach a grand-slam singles semifinals, has also since parted ways with the CTA.)
Whatever the reason, the CTA did agree three years ago to allow Li to fly alone. Well, not completely alone: the Chinese state still takes up to 12% of her earnings for having developed her into a star, but that’s down from a reported 65% when she was officially part of the national-team structure. Nevertheless, the CTA did give Li the freedom to choose her own coach and organize her practice schedules. In fact, Li ended up choosing her husband as her coach before dumping him—as a coach not a husband—for a Danish trainer last month.
Li’s historic victory at Roland Garros was greeted with euphoria in China, where the match wrapped up shortly before midnight. In a scroll across the screen, state broadcaster CCTV proclaimed: “Li Na, we love you!” But Li has maintained a pricklier relationship with some of her etiquette-challenged Chinese fans. When she became the first Chinese woman to reach a grand-slams final at the Australian Open in January, the noisy encouragement from Chinese fans startled a sport where silences are sacrosanct while the ball is moving or serves are unleashed. At one point, Li even complained about her countrymen to the chair referee, snapping: “Can you tell the Chinese, don’t teach me how to play tennis?”
Of course, back when Li was plucked out of school by the Chinese sports system, tennis—with all its capitalist, country-club connotations—was as unlikely a pursuit for a provincial Chinese kid as, say, polo or scuba-diving. Now, it’s a hot sport for newly rich Chinese who gift private coaching to their offspring, usually pampered single children because of China’s one-child family-planning policy.
In fact, the day before Li won at Roland Garros, I chatted with a celebrity writer in Beijing. He wanted to discuss serious political trends shaping China. But he also wanted to talk about his 10-year-old child who was crazy for tennis. His son was taking intensive lessons and had played on clay courts twice in preparation for watching the French Open. The family was even talking about whether to transplant to the U.S. for the sake of the kid’s tennis game. I have no idea if the boy is any good. But this was a Chinese kid who played tennis because he wanted to play, not because the state required him to do so. Li Na, Asian groundbreaker, would surely approve.