On Saturday, as Li Na triumphed on the sanguinary ‘China-red’ clay courts of the Roland Garros in Paris, she managed to weave multiple strands of inspiration into one spectacular narrative. At 29, she became the first individual player — woman or man — from a nation of more than a billion people to win a Grand Slam singles title. Even as the rest of Asia rushed ahead to embrace the Chinese success story at the French Open (no other Asian has ever managed that feat either), compelling details emerged of her triumph over adversities, including the death of her father, a badminton player when she was 14 and her free-spirited disposition that made her pull out of the government-run sports training system in 2008.
Li’s victory — no flash in the pan, if one remembers that she ended as the runner-up at the Australian Open earlier this year — also allowed peeks into what is otherwise an iron-clad system. That around 95 million viewers (according to Xinhua) had tuned in to watch the match was an impressive achievement in itself, in a country where basketball, football and badminton enjoy far greater popularity. This was no assembly-line, terra cotta warrior-like sportsperson churned out by the State system. Rather she’s a flesh-and-blood person who would bargain to reduce the prize money she was supposed to share with the government.
The only discordant note seemed to have been struck at the post-match press conference, when Li was asked about the significance of winning the title on June 4, the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. While Li chose to evade that volley, one wonders if her opponent Italian Francesca Schiavone would have had to tackle questions on Berlusconian excesses in case she had won. As the pecking order in the world of tennis gradually changes, the proclivity to turn moments of hard-won victory into situations of awkwardness perhaps need to be reined in.