Why tennis star Li Na left China out of her awesome Australian Open victory speech

January 27, 2014
January 27, 2014

When Chinese tennis player Li Na retires from the game, she might have a second career as a stand-up comedian. The 31-year-old from Wuhan scored laughs for acknowledging her agent (“he makes me rich, thanks a lot”) and her husband (“my hitting partner, fixes the drinks … you’re so lucky you found me”) after a convincing win in the finals of the Australian Open.

Some tennis fans are calling her honest, tongue-in-cheek remarks the best victory speech ever, but in China Li’s legion of fans were most impressed with who she left out—her country.

Li’s win and her victory speech have generated over 370,000 posts on the Sina Weibo microblog, with many celebrating her’s as the triumph of someone who has earned success on their own terms. One internet user (registration required) said, “Congrats, Li Na! Li Na didn’t stick with cliches like thanking the motherland or the party…Support Li Na!” Another, noting that Li no longer receives financial support from Beijing, said, “The government isn’t spending money on her. These honors don’t belong to the country, but to her alone.”

Li, who is worth an estimated $40 million after her win, is known as something of a rebel in China. After being selected by government coaches at the age of nine and training in the state program for years, she first left the national tennis team in 2002 to hone her technique on her own. (She rejoined in 2009 but left again.) Her tattoos, dyed hair, and decision to marry while still competing—Chinese state athletes are banned from even dating—are all in stark contrast to the athletes churned out by China’s notoriously strict national sports program. She’s even turned down (link in Chinese) being on China’s grand Spring Festival television special in favor of going home to ring in the Lunar New Year with her mother.

In a country with a Soviet-style state sports program that has been criticized for pursuing medals at any cost, Li has said (link in Chinese), “Don’t say I’m doing this for my country’s glory. I do this for me.” As one Sina Weibo user said, “I don’t think there’s any other Chinese athlete that would dare to speak like that.”

Jennifer Chiu contributed additional reporting.

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