Li Na has never Googled herself. For that matter, she’s never searched her name on Baidu, the search-engine equivalent in China, either.
“No! Never,” she said last week during an interview with australianopen.com. “I’m not interested in myself.”
But following her run in the first half of 2011 in which the Chinese No.1 was a finalist at the Australian Open and then became her country’s first-ever Grand Slam champion in singles with a French Open victory, interest in Li skyrocketed in the world’s most populous nation.
“Within two hours of her winning, she went from 1.8 million followers on Weibo [China’s social media hub] to two million,” said Renjie Liu, a journalist with the Chinese news website SINA.com. “Now she has 14.9 million followers. She's the most well-known female sports figure in China.”
Renjie categorises Li with three Chinese male superstar athletes: Liu Xiang, the 110 metre hurdles gold medalist at the Athens Olympics, Yao Ming, the former NBA basketball player, and swimmer Sun Yang, who was the first Chinese man to ever win an Olympic swimming medal, doing so at the London Games last year.
“Before she won the French, she was a world-class athlete. But after that win, she moved into a class with Yao and Sun,” Renjie continued.
“After that match, everyone knows her. There were over 118 million people watching that match that night.”
China has seen an exponential growth in tennis since Li’s surge. This year at the Australian Open, Wu Di became the first-ever male player to compete in a Grand Slam event.
It was after her French Open win in 2011 that Li felt an enormous amount of pressure. She went a dismal 6-6 to close the season, losing early at both Wimbledon and the US Open.
“After the dream comes true, I lose myself,” she told australianopen.com in 2012. “I’m not feeling hungry on the tennis court. I just lose the concentration. I couldn’t find my focus.”
But after a so-so 2012, Li has seemingly found her focus again in 2013, running up a 14-1 record leading into Saturday night’s final against Victoria Azarenka, partly thanks to coach Carlos Rodriguez, who joined her team in July 2012.
It’s Rodriguez that Renjie says helped smooth over Li’s tepid relationship with the Chinese media, who had been critical of its star player following her Grand Slam hangover.
“Her relationship with the media changed in the past year following Carlos joining her,” Renjie said. “Carlos told me, 'it's her responsibility to work with the media.' Obviously it's our job as media to cover her matches, but … that was the lesson Carlos was giving Li Na, telling her to take that responsibility.”
With an increased sense of ownership, Li has appeared on Chinese talk shows prior to the 2013 season, a glance at its most-powerful female athlete that the Chinese public adored, Renjie said.
“She opened up a lot about her childhood, about before she was famous and the ups and downs from after her French Open win ... she shared a lot,” Renjie said. “Fans love her more after watching that. It's so rare in China [for an athlete to do that].”
But Li can still go out in public and be somewhat normal, she says, as long as she’s cautious.
“I put on a hat and if someone asks me, ‘Are you Li Na?’ I shake my head and say, ‘No! Just look like her!’” Li said, laughing.
It’s that sort of sense of humour that has endeared her not only to the Chinese audiences, but to the English-speaking public as well. Following her 2011 semifinal win at the Australian Open, Li told the on-court interviewer that her husband kept her the night before – snoring.
“Maybe he can stay in the bathroom,” she joked. The crowd roared with laughter.
In China, her comedic approach is coupled with a straightforward one that audiences have warmed to, her Chinese flowing much better than her English, which she still struggles with.
“She's very unique in the public's eye,” Renjie said. “If she wants to tell you anything, she'll tell you straight away. She just speaks her mind. People like her honesty and straightforward approach. Sometimes she can give controversial answers. But people respect her.”
So what if she wins a second Australian Open? More pressure? But also more respect?
“I really didn't think about that,” Li said on Friday during a press conference. “Let me think. Maybe after if I win the title, [I] disappear for a couple days [and] maybe try to stay [with my] family. No one can find me because I really need the time with friend, also family, you know.”
Renjie said her reach in China would only get bigger should she beat Azarenka on Saturday night.
“It would be bigger than the French Open because after she won there, people expected her to do well and she struggled with the pressure,” Renjie explained.
“People started to criticise her. But, to fight again, to have this opportunity, [that] is a good spirit from her. People cherish that. If it happens again, that would be pretty big.”