Li Na’s weekend victory in the French Open Tennis Championship, the first Grand Slam singles win for any Asian player, is bitter-sweet for China’s Soviet-era sports system. For Li’s greatest successes are not a product of it. She, with three other players, fought to break away from the state-run system in 2008, demanding the right to manage her own career, choose her coaches and pick the tournaments that she would play in. She also gets to keep a bigger cut of her winnings. Now 29, her time at the top has come relatively late for a professional player.
Sun Jinfang, the country’s top tennis official, says more Chinese athletes should follow suit. Yet so extensive are the tentacles of the state sports system, which was so triumphant at the 2008 Beijing Olympics where Chinese athletes topped the medals tables even though they didn’t win one track and field gold, that dismantling it seems almost inconceivable. As ever, reform runs into the brick wall of embedded and widespread vested interest.
Tennis, of course, is a minor sport in China, compared to badminton or table tennis, so it might be given a little leeway, at least for a time. Only 12 million play the game. And while Li has become a national sporting hero, she is not one on the same scale as Yao Ming, Liu Xiang or Ding Junhui. That she will give the sport’s popularity a boost in China is without doubt. Who doesn’t like a winner? And China’s sports system has not produced too many in those sports where professional rewards are high and the international quality of competition deep.
Li has a determination and petulance given to few others. No other players since the original 2008 quartet have been prepared to chance leaving the embrace of the system, even though it is focused on Olympic success and not the professional championships that are tennis’s highest prizes. As in so many sports, China, does not have strength in depth at the top level (only 12 of the top 500 women in professional tennis are Chinese; France has twice as many, Russia four times.) That Li will be the agent of change for the state’s labyrinthine sporting administration that has produced that state of affairs seems unlikely.