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Li Na – The Power Behind The Smile

What do East and West have in common? We both love Li Na.

Think about that simple sentence – and the enormity of the achievement behind it.

There’s no better time to salute Li Na than during the China Open, though ironically she has trouble winning it.

Hardly surprising really, when you have hundreds of millions of home-grown fans expecting you to triumph each time.

But on one level, Li Na’s job is already done again this year.  Trivial as her 3-2 “Battle of the Sexes” victory over Novak Djokovic was, it hinted at something much deeper. The slap-stick entertainment they laid on for the world delighted East and West once more. We were united in an affectionate, global smile.

Li Na “gets” the West. She also helps her changing country to do so. At the same time she helps us to “get” changing China too. Trust can develop through the kind of understanding and common ground she brings.

You can very easily go all “John Lennon” about Li Na and credit her with having helped China break down barriers with the rest of the world. And why not? It’s true!  If there is one female tennis player who helps us to “imagine there’s no countries” it is Li Na. It really isn’t hard to do, when she remains an icon in China yet a heroine to legions of western fans at the same time.

You think this is all too fanciful and idealistic?

So who graced the cover of Time Magazine when they listed the “one hundred most influential people in the world this year?”   Li Na, in a glorious photo which encapsulated both her quirkiness and her beauty at the same time.

I’d like to think those perceptive people at the magazine weren’t just focusing on the kind of viewing figures she gets back home for her big matches – 116 million for her French Open triumph two years ago, the first Grand Slam title won by an Asian player.

It’s not just China that enjoys her success. We all do.  Li Na is a tennis rebel, she has clashed with Chinese sports bodies in the past, she has put a tattoo on her chest, she has done her own thing. Yet she is still Chinese, and the face of China we can all relate to.

I first met Li Na in Birmingham a few years ago and she really surprised me with her funny, teasing remarks, first about her ability to beat Maria Sharapova, then about her own tattoo, and finally about her amusing relationship with her husband and then-coach, Jiang Shan. She made us all smile then, and she continues to do so – by being open.

She has talked about Jiang Shan’s snoring. For his part, he revealed he adopted the western name “Dennis” because it rhymes with “tennis”. Simple little things, human and humorous, which capture the world’s affection. Of course, Li Na wouldn’t have been able to achieve what she has if she was no more than a rebel and a comedienne. She is also a very fine tennis player, who has given herself a new lease of life with Justine Henin’s old coach, Carlos Rodriguez.

At 31, the world number 5 can still battle it out with the very best. She probably should have won this year’s Australian Open. She reached the semi-final of the US.   At Wimbledon we can’t get enough of her, and she has returned that love by reaching the quarter-finals three times, including this year. Chinese visitors to Wimbledon get a warm welcome. Their heroine is someone we love too.

We love her for her brilliance and also for her imperfections. Unlike many top tennis players, Li Na has never let the sport turn her into a machine. Her humanity has always shone through.

And here’s the wonderful thing.   When Li Na smiles, the whole world smiles with her.  It sounds hopelessly romantic, doesn’t it? But there is true power in that smile. The power to unite should not be underestimated.

Long may Li Na treat us to her scintillating tennis – and long may she have reason to smile.

Mark Ryan