Tennis: Li Na flying solo and flying high

By John Salvado

A late bloomer on the world tennis circuit, crowd favourite has embraced the Chinese sporting system of danfei — going it alone

Loosely translated, the Chinese sporting system of danfei means "flying solo".

And it was a key aspect in allowing Li Na - arguably the most popular athlete in the world's most populous country - to fly.

All the way to the pinnacle of world tennis.

Li has been a trailblazer throughout her late-blooming career.

The first Chinese player to win a WTA singles event in 2004.

The first to reach a Grand Slam singles final at the Australian Open in 2011.

The first to win a major title, five months later at Roland Garros.

And today, the 30-year-old Li takes centre stage again when she plays world No1 Victoria Azarenka in the Australian Open decider.

Li's humorous outlook and fighting spirit will make her the crowd favourite at Rod Laver Arena against Azarenka, who won no friends with her controversial medical timeout late in the semifinal win over Sloane Stephens on Thursday.

"Right now it's much, much better than two years ago," said Li, the sixth seed who will vault back into the world's top five next week.

"Two years ago it was the first one to the final, the first one to win.

"For the people it was so exciting.

"The second time they think, 'Oh, she win again. She in the final again. Maybe not so interesting any more."'

Maybe. But probably not.

Tao Xingying, a sports correspondent with Shanghai's Xinmin Evening News, says Li has been the catalyst in making tennis a fashionable sport in a country which historically favoured the likes of table tennis and badminton.

"In tennis you have superstars," said Tao.

"They are handsome, they are young, they are charming like [Novak] Djokovic, like [Roger] Federer.

"In table tennis we are always No1.

"But if Li Na wins a Grand Slam the people will feel more proud because it is a sport dominated by athletes from Europe or America or elsewhere.

"And now we have a great Chinese player."

It wasn't always going to be the case.

After turning professional in 1999, a jaded Li quit the sport aged 20 in 2002 to study journalism.

She was coaxed back 18 months later and went on to became a major beneficiary of the danfei system, which was first implemented by Chinese sporting authorities after the Olympic Games in Beijing.

It allowed top players more autonomy over their careers and the capacity to retain most of their prize money.

And it clearly worked for Li.

Husband Jiang Shan took over as her coach, although it was Dane Michael Mortensen who guided the Chinese star to the French Open title, before the reins were handed back to Jiang.

Within weeks of winning her maiden Grand Slam crown, Li had signed seven multimillion-dollar endorsement deals with the likes of Babolat, Haagen-Dazs, Nike, Samsung and Mercedes.

She and IMG stablemate Maria Sharapova are the only women on Forbes' 2012 list of the world's 100 best paid athletes - the glamorous Russian at No26 with US$27.9 million and Li at No81 with US$18.4 million in combined prize money and endorsements.

Li hasn't been afraid to make the tough decisions about her on-court career either.

Following early exits at Wimbledon and the London Olympics last year, she again relieved Jiang of coaching duties, replacing him with Justine Henin's former mentor Carlos Rodriguez.

A notably tough taskmaster, Rodriguez submitted her to a gruelling fitness regime - while allowing Li and Jiang to go back to being primarily husband and wife, rather than coach and athlete.

"The funny thing is, two years ago in China someone said I was divorced," Li said. "Because they were thinking, we're always shouting, maybe we're divorced.

"It's just being coach and husband [makes it] tough to find a balance."

That balance has clearly been restored, with Li's trademark smile regularly on show at Melbourne Park over the past fortnight.

For Tao Xingying, it's a key part of Li's appeal.

"Her personality is unique," said Tao. "She has a quick temper and humour.

"People also loved [former Houston Rockets NBA star] Yao Ming because he could speak English well and was humorous."

Yao was China's first global sporting superstar. He was followed by Liu Xiang, who won gold in the 110m hurdles at the 2004 Olympics before having his 2008 and 2012 campaigns ended by injury.

China's headline act at the London Games was swimmer Sun Yang, who won gold in the 400m and 1500m freestyle.

But a case can be made that Li, who first took up tennis at the age of 5, is now bigger than all of them.

- AAP

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