Can you imagine? It’s mind-boggling isn’t it? And what’s even more compelling is that Na Li (Li Na?) was well aware of this and seemed to graciously accept her role as China’s leading tennis ambassador. It’s a weighty honor to be sure. It makes the pressure that Federer feels from Switzerland or Nadal from Spain frankly pale in comparison. 116 million Chinese watched a tennis match. Unbelievable.
If Na Li were American, that would translate into some massive endorsement deals. I don’t know how the Chinese have elected to honor her. But I do know that the influence of her Roland Garros win will resound into the next generation of tennis players.
Upon hearing of Na Li’s victory an American friend of mine commented that “the Chinese are taking over”. He went on to grouse about the Chinese domination of a number of sports and remained somewhat perturbed by my support of Na Li. My friend felt threatened. He anticipated that there will be no sport immune to Chinese dominance in the future. He was aghast that I was perfectly fine with this.
My perspective was that you don’t punish people for working hard. I told him that if Na Li ended up inspiring Chinese women to play tennis, I couldn’t fault her for that. I pointed out that other countries have had tennis stars who influenced others in the same way. No doubt Julie Georges was inspired by Steffi Graf. There are bucket loads of Russian women playing tennis because of Myskina and Kournikova. And there is no way to measure the widespread influence of Navratilova a generation before.
But I conceded that none of this had the scope of 116 million. I can’t even begin to wrap my mind around that number, or around the notion of just how many little girls and boys have since asked their parents to buy tennis rackets. I can’t imagine the explosion that tennis is going to have on the Asian continent. All of this was imagined before and certainly explains the ATP and WTA forays into Shanghai and other Asian tournament locations. But none of that will probably have the reach of Na Li’s win.
I was actually too nervous to watch this match live. I am a nervous wreck when my faves are playing. Not just a nervous wreck but a delusional and irrational one as well. For example, when Federer went up 4-1 in the first set against Rafa, I was excited but fine. The minute Rafa equalized the match I turned off the TV and did not see another ball. I couldn’t bear it. Surely it was my watching the match in the first place that might be influencing the outcome? One of these days I will write an article on the irrationality of tennis fans and the delusions of power and influence that we give ourselves.
So for reasons related to my far-reaching power and influence as a fan, I also did not watch the Na Li match live. But I did watch the re-run on the Tennis Channel, because by then I knew the outcome and could watch it with pleasure but no pain. To be fair, Schiavone never brought the level of intensity seen in matches leading up to the finals. She seemed almost sad, muted, de-energized. I don’t know if her fight to get to the finals had sapped all of her energy. She was a shadow of herself in that match.
But Na Li had clearly come to that match with a clear and concise winning strategy. She did not play the corner to corner game that most players now do and which becomes so predictable. Instead she returned balls hard to Schiavone’s feet, trapping her at the baseline and often preventing her from coming into net. She also drove balls hard down the middle, taking away Schiavone’s angles. She stymied Schiavone’s creativity.
And above all, the Na Li forehand not only held up strongly but became the source of some of her best shots. The woman herself remained calm, confident, and in the end thrilled with her victory. 116 million Chinese and one tennischick are very proud of her.