Not that I have much interest in WTA, but I thought this was an interesting and well written article (makes a change from the deranged, irrational rantings of 'Golden Retriever' in that other thread...... French Open glory is rich reward for Li’s brave choice to become an outsider Matthew Syed Sports Feature Writer of the Year June 11 2011 12:01AM Last Saturday Li Na, the Chinese No 1, lifted the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen at the French Open in Paris. The date, June 4, was rich in symbolism for all sorts of reasons, not least because it was 22 years to the day since the Tiananmen Square massacre. It was the first time that a player from China had won a grand-slam event and her triumph was watched by more than 100 million of her compatriots. After an emotional press conference, Li and Jiang Shan, her husband and former coach, repaired to the Chinese embassy in Paris for a Szechuan feast replete with champagne and ice-cold beer. “I drank rather a lot,” the 29-year-old Li says with an endearing grin when we meet in Eastbourne, where she will be playing in the AEGON International in the build-up to Wimbledon. “Isn’t that what you are supposed to do when you win a big sporting event?” But Li’s triumph, sealed by beating Francesca Schiavone, the 2010 champion, 6-4, 7-6, was about far more than sport. It was, in many ways, an act of political subversion, one that has reverberated at the highest echelons of the ruling elite and provoked intense debate within the Chinese intelligentsia. The reason is simple but, in a nation still grappling with the myriad contradictions of state capitalism, revelatory. Li won her historic title not as a fully paid-up member of the all-pervading Chinese sports system, but as an outsider. In 2008, she negotiated an unprecedented deal freeing herself from State control, where coaches and bureaucrats determine every aspect of a sportsperson’s life, and was given free rein to make her own decisions and to keep the vast majority of her prize money rather than handing it over to the government (she now keeps 90 per cent rather than 35 per cent of her winnings). For the older generation, still labouring under the Maoist presumption that the “State knows best”, it was nothing less than an act of political rebellion. “Flying solo is what people started to call it and it generated a lot of interest from within sport and beyond,” Li says. “I had been invited to the Beijing National Centre in 1999 and found that the coaches wanted to decide how I played, who I practised with and all other things. But I wanted to make my own decisions. I am individual, with a unique style and perspective. It was a big decision to leave the system, because many people said I would fail. But you have to have the self-confidence to make your own choices and live with the consequences.” The departure of Li from her State-funded coaches in 2008 was, in truth, merely the culmination of a long-running battle by this extraordinary woman to assert her individuality against the constricting logic of the centrally controlled system. It was at the age of 17 that she was plucked from her provincial team by the multitentacled talent identification unit of the sporting regime and taken to the National Centre in Beijing. But once there she discovered that the level of control did not lessen as one progressed up the ladder; it intensified. She was instructed by her coaches to ditch Jiang, her boyfriend at the time, because they regarded him a distraction from her tennis career. Such intervention into the personal lives of top sportspeople is far from unusual. Wang Hao, the table tennis champion, was forced to end his relationship with Fan Ying, a fellow player, in 2004 because the coaches deemed it a hindrance to his training. Fan was banished from Beijing and sent back home. Li, however, was having none of it. “When they told me to finish with Jiang, I said, ‘No,’ ” she says with visible defiance. “What could they do to force me? It was my relationship and my decision.” It speaks volumes for her ferocious independence as well as her love for Jiang that, despite living in a culture where questioning authority was tantamount to sedition, she did not contemplate falling into line. Unsurprisingly, there is already a rearguard action from Chinese traditionalists to appropriate Li’s triumph in Paris. Xiang Ligang, the president of an internet company, wrote on his microblog: “It is too early to say that her victory was a consequence of her freedom. Where did the money come for her training as a young player? It is the State-run sports system that helped her grow into an excellent athlete. It is the State-run system that established the foundation and made her realise her value. If she had been free from the start, we might not even see her shadow.” But those at the forefront of shifting attitudes to authority and individualism, particularly a younger generation with no first-hand memories of the era of Chairman Mao, see it fundamentally differently. As Li Chengpeng, a leading sports commentator, put it: “We are all clear about the significance of Li Na’s victory. The clay-court champion has a message for all the industries under the State-run system . . . The State system has nowhere to go.” Li is more than aware of the symbolism of her achievements and the ideological debate she has triggered, but she is also conciliatory in the way she describes her journey. “I still have contact with my former coaches and feel gratitude for what they did to help me,” she says. “You can never be totally independent from your community. But I am enjoying my life as a player on the tour and love the freedom it provides. Tennis is a very individual sport, with lots of different styles and lots of ideas from around the world about how to excel.” Although a translator is present, Li breaks into English at regular intervals and reveals a wonderful grasp of the language. When I ask about her press conference at the Australian Open, where she teased her husband publicly for his snoring, she blushes ever so slightly and then breaks into a fit of giggles. “He is getting better, because he knows that I have to get a good night’s sleep,” she says. “If it gets too loud, I give him a quick push and say, ‘Cut that out please!’ But he takes it all in good spirit and we get on really well now that he is not my official coach.” Back in China, Li — who is called “Na Jie” or “Yi Jie”, which mean “Sister Na” and “No 1 Lady” — is not merely a poster-girl for individualism; she is also renowned for her fiery temper and stand-up attitude. She loses her cool with her husband with clockwork regularity, most recently during the second set of the French Open final, when Schiavone was trying to come back and she shouted in Wuhan (her home-town dialect): “Don’t just sit there. Cheer for me!” Jiang, for his part, has been known to leave his seat in the stands after a ferocious dressing-down. Many commentators have professed surprise that the political elite even considered allowing Li to move beyond the parameters of the State, thus paving the way for a symbolic shot to be fired against the logic of authoritarianism. But it can be seen as a decision that reflects the growing debate within the Communist Party about the logical endpoint of the reforms set in train by Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s. Although the commercial freedoms have provided the engine for the most rapid and widespread rise in living standards in human history, the constraints of political authority are still in place. According to the 2011 Index on Economic Freedom: “The Communist Party, though allowing some economic movements in response to market forces, still maintains ultimate authority over virtually all economic decision-making. The State-controlled financial sector often allocates credit based on political criteria, undermining economic efficiency and productivity.” Quite whether Li intended to be eulogised alongside Hayek and Locke, those great champions of freedom, in university internet forums in Beijing and elsewhere is far from certain. She shrugs her shoulders and smiles beatifically when I pose the question. But the ripple effects of her stunning triumph on a red-clay court in the suburbs of Paris are beyond dispute. As Mao himself put it: “Once all struggle is grasped, miracles are possible.” The trailblazers • Tennis is the third most popular sport in China, after football and basketball. The number playing has increased from one to more than 14 million people in the past 20 years and is growing by 15 per cent a year. The country has 30,000 courts. • A talent programme called Swing for the Stars began in 2007 to train children from the age of 12. The best are then sent to the United States. • The men’s and women’s tours have been keen to tap the tennis market, the China Open being one of the top four events on the women’s calendar, outside the grand slams, and Shanghai staging the men’s season-ending Masters finals. • The first Chinese players to reach a tour final were men — Zeng Shaoxuan and Zhu Benqiang in the doubles at the Heineken Open in Shanghai in 2003 — but generally women lead the way. Li Ting and Sun Tiantian won the Olympic doubles gold medal in 2004 and two years later Zheng Jie and Yan Zi won the Australian Open and Wimbledon women’s doubles titles. • At the 2010 Australian Open, Li Na and Zheng Jie reached the semi-finals. This year, Li has reached the Australian Open final and won the French Open. Four Chinese women occupy top 100 places in the world rankings.