It wasn’t quite the homecoming Li Na or the China Open had in mind when the French Open champion returned to Beijing. Sure she was feted and fawned over by an adoring Chinese public before the tournament began, but amid all the hoopla, there was a tangible pressure on Li Na to do well this week, not only to please the local fans but to silence the growing criticism from some in the Chinese press on her up and down year that saw her claim her maiden Grand Slam title but also crash out of the U.S. Open in the first round last month.
The homecoming, which included the Chinese star signing another endorsement deal, this time with a local water company, came to an end today when Romanian qualifier Monica Niculescu won their opening round match 6-4, 6-0. Afterwards in her press conference, Li Na described her year as a “sitting rollercoaster” which despite its awkward meeting is a perfect summation of her year which not only included reaching the finals of Melbourne and then winning Paris, but a string of inexplicable first round losses along with the hiring and then firing of coach Michael Mortenson who helped her win Paris in favor of having her husband return to coaching duties, a role he was dismissed from earlier this Spring.
And then there’s the money.
Winning a Major title often brings a slew of sponsorship opportunities for a player. But Li Na being Chinese put her on a fast track to multi-millionaire status as major brands such as Mercedes-Benz, Rolex, Häagen-Dazs and others (nine in total and counting) signed Li Na in the hopes her face will be the gateway to a billion plus new customers. It’s made her the second highest earning female tennis player next to Maria Sharapova, but one has to think that the added time commitments and pressure of living up to all those zeros being thrown at her is part of the reason for Li Na’s roller coaster results. Li Na was never a beacon of consistency for most of her career to begin with and I doubt if her new sponsors were even aware of that or cared frankly about her so-so results prior to 2011 when they made their deals with her. But if she continues her spotty win/loss record into next year, will those same eager endorsers start having buyer’s remorse?
Dealing with post-Major success is never easy. Just ask Petra Kvitova. But Li Na in the span of nine months has morphed into two people. She’s still a flat-hitting veteran player that can still beat anyone on any given day on any surface. But she’s also become a national hero in a country where achievement in sport is good for government policy while also transforming into a one-woman endorsement machine. We’ve seen some players embrace their newfound celebrity and use it to fuel them to even greater success. But right now Li Na is definitely not handling being one of the biggest names in her country which she alluded to her in press conference today where she said she will not play any more tournaments (unless she qualifies for the year end championships in Istanbul as expected.)
“So I think right now it’s end of the season, so it’s long break for me, like not only for the body, for the mind also. I think that was more important. So hopefully I can stand up again and prepare for next year.”
The China Open Daily mused in a headline prior to the start of the event on which Li would show up. They were referring to her up and down season on the court but they might as well been talking about Li’s new double identity as tennis player and global marketing superstar. A long break may be what she needs to be ready to stand up and be counted on in 2012 as a Major contender again but she will likely use this time to sort out her personal life and bank account that is forever changed. I would like to think Li could win another Major, but age 29 and all her difficulties she’s had this year dealing with being “Li Na”, I wouldn’t be surprised if Paris is her lone Slam title. It’s been a roller coaster year for sure so far, but Li’s ability to handle both parts of her life better allowing her to be a contender once again for a Major title while reaping more financial rewards based on her status back home, while hopefully throwing in a few of her trademark funny one-liners, could be one of the sport’s most fascinating balancing acts to keep track all of next year.
Click here to read Li Na’s press conference in Beijing.