Li eyes New York launchpad to superstardom
Date published :
24 Aug 2011 - 02:30:20
French Open champion Li Na is reaping the rewards after her determined, yet unorthodox path made her the first player from Asia to win a Grand Slam title.
With Li's popularity growing, companies in her homeland China and companies who want to tap that vast market have hopped on the bandwagon.
Since her 6-4, 7-6 (7/0) victory over Francesca Schiavone in the Roland Garros final, carmaker Mercedes-Benz has signed a deal to make Li their first "global ambassador".
They join luxury watchmaker Rolex and ice cream manufacturers Haagen-Dazs, along with sporting goods giants Nike, a longtime sponsor who got a boost in China from her success.
"She has captivated a country," Max Eisenbud, Lis agent at IMG, told Sports Business Journal. "We could do 25 deals."
Eisenbud has predicted that Li's endorsements over the next three years could top $40 million, perhaps eclipsing Russian superstar Maria Sharapova as the top endorsement earner in women's sports.
Sharapova, who is also represented by Eisenbud, is estimated by Forbes to make more than $25 million annually in endorsements.
Not long after her disappointing second-round Wimbledon loss to Sabine Lisicki, IMG announced plans for a exhibition re-match between the two in Wuhan in December.
The boom in interest in Li started with her runner-up finish to Kim Clijsters at the Australian Open.
She floundered after that performance, with four straight first-round defeats.
Her tough decision to drop husband Jiang Shan as her coach and hire Denmark's Michael Mortensen, helped turn things around -- and typified the no-nonsense approach Li has taken throughout her career.
It was an early foray into badminton that led Li to tennis. But her dissatisfaction with the Chinese sports system led to clashes with officialdom.
Frustrated at her inability to move past the fringes of the WTA tour she retired for two years in her early 20s and studied journalism.
Now she is the face of tennis in China, while the dry humour she displayed at Melbourne and Paris has garnered fans in the West.
The government in her native Hubei province showered her with honours and wanted to appoint her deputy head of the provincial tennis administration centre, the state-run Xinhua news agency reported.
Li declined, saying she was too busy playing tennis.
That's not to say she isn't pleased with her new high profile.
"Amazing," she said of her reception when she returned to China in July.
"I think because I didn't do well in Wimbledon, maybe not so many people," she said. "The day was so warm, but still I think at least a thousand people were coming just to say, 'Well done, congratulations.'
"I was feeling like, 'Wow, now I'm a star,'" she said with a smile.
Those fans who might once have thought they recognized her -- but not quite remembered why -- now know just who she is and what she does.
"So life was changed a little bit," Li said with another smile. "But I like it."