Ms Li’s performance in this year’s first grand slam event has called attention to another act of rebellion that could have bigger ramifications for the future of sport in China. Two years ago she was one of four female tennis players who were released from the rigid structure of the Chinese sports system and allowed to manage their own careers.
“When I was young, I did what the coaches and leaders told me to do,” she says. “Now I am playing for myself.”
The tussle over the future of the sports system has become emblematic of a wider tension in Chinese society between individualistic younger generations and the paternalistic habits that still pervade.
“Our leaders and media like those who are obedient and lack character, but Li Na is definitely not like that,” poet Zhao Lihua said in a blog posting. “I like her spontaneity. I like her recklessness. I like her being so cool.”
China’s Soviet-style sports system achieved its high point at the Beijing Olympics when the host country topped the gold medal table. Promising kids are identified at an early age and funnelled into full-time training. Coaches control every aspect of an athlete’s career, from when they wake up to which matches they play, and bureaucrats take more than half the winnings.
Yet, the system has been coming under pressure since Yao Ming moved to play basketball in the US in 2002. Not only did athletes in big-money sports want to retain more of their income, but the conformity of the Chinese system was found wanting in some sports.
When Mr Yao first played in the US, his coach wanted him to intimidate opponents by slam-dunking the ball. “He was very reluctant because slam-dunking was frowned upon in China as a sign of individualism,” says Brook Larmer, author of a book about the player. He eventually relented after the coach made his teammates run laps of the court each time he refused.
Ms Li has admitted she would not have played tennis when younger without pressure from administrators, but she also left the sport for two years because of her disillusionment with the rigidity of the Chinese system.
When she and three other top players were allowed to leave the system in 2008 and retain more than 90 per cent of their earnings, there was a flurry of criticism from parts of the establishment, especially after early results disappointed.
“The players flying independent have not had an ideal performance,” Cai Zhenhua, a senior sports official said at the time. “At least so far, it is not suitable for more to break out from the system.”
But even before this year’s success in Australia, Ms Li and colleague Zheng Jie started to silence critics by both reaching the semi-finals in Melbourne last year. They have also helped galvanise rapidly growing interest in tennis, especially among well-off urbanites.