The Women’s Tennis Association could not be happier today. With her victory in the French Open on Saturday, Li Na became the first Chinese tennis player to win a major singles championship. Her historic triumph brings an unprecedented opportunity to market the sport to China’s perceived fan base of 1.3 billion people. According to Tennis Channel commentator Justin Gimelstob, Li’s finals match against Francesca Schiavone drew a Chinese audience of 116 million.
The press has compared Li to basketball player Yao Ming because she carries a wink and an edge that could stand to make her popular beyond the tennis crowd. As CNN-Beijing’s Xiaoni Chen wrote somewhat primly, “She has a tattoo, has dyed her hair many different colors and has even been known to yell at her husband in public.” When speaking about her victory over Schiavone, Li said in halting English, “Of course I was nervous. But I didn’t want to show the opponent. I was a little bit cheating.” By “cheating” she meant “acting.”
She’s funny, smart, and good enough to contend in every Grand Slam tournament. Like Yao, she could become that holiest of holy grails in sports marketing: a brand. The clay had not even been smoothed on the courts of Roland Garros before the Wall Street Journal was asking the question, “As China celebrates Li Na’s victory in the French Open the next question is how she—and the world’s biggest brands—will cash in on her celebrity. Which labels will she represent? How will she be marketed? And who will pay the big money for her endorsement?”
The irony at work should be readily apparant. In the Eastern bloc, athletics was seen as a way for athletes to forge individual identities. Often times, as in the case with Czech tennis great Martina Navratilova or Cuban pitcher Orlando Hernandez, it meant defecting to the West so they could reach greener pastures and flower freely.
Now Li seems set to bloom: and the fertlizer is coming in bags labeled Nike and Rolex. Rolex is Li’s biggest sponsor and as the Wall Street Journal explained, “A Rolex watch is a status symbol among China’s wealthy set.” As for Nike, Li’s entourage was all wearing canary-yellow Nike shirts that read “Achieve Yourself” in Mandarin lettering. The savvy Li pointed out in her victory-press conference that Nike had produced very few of these shirts for the Chinese market. She said, “I think now they should make more. A lot of fans would like to have these shirts.”