Li Na endures storm of criticism after first round exit

Oct 3, 2011, 4:38 a.m.
China's Li Na watches the ball during her match against Romania's Monica Niculescu at the China Open tennis tournament in Beijing October 2, 2011. REUTERS/Petar Kujundzic

By Peter Simpson

BEIJING (Reuters) - Li Na, the first Asian woman to win a grand slam singles title, has been served a volley of criticism after her shock first round exit at the China Open.

The state media and sections of her huge fan base accused the French Open winner of spending too much time securing lucrative sponsorship deals rather than improving her tennis and capitalizing on her historic win in Paris.

"Li Na: world tennis star or expert in the fashion world?" said one headline on cqnews.com, in reference to the many commercial deals the 29-year-old has signed.

Since her Paris win, Li Na has repeatedly conceded she is suffering a crisis of confidence.

She was dumped out of her first competition on home soil since her landmark win, scoring only four points despite the vocal home support.

Clearly upset after her 6-4 6-0 loss to 58th-ranked Romanian Monica Niculescu, she refused when asked to offer any explanation to her legions of Chinese fans.

Instead, when asked if the need to satisfy her sponsors was piling destructive game-affecting pressure on her, she apologized to her corporate backers for her premature exit.

"I know if I can do well on the court of course it's good for all the sponsors, but I have to say sorry for that," she told reporters.

Editorial writers and disappointed fans jumped on her comment, saying she has spent more time signing contracts and less on the training court.

"Li Na should have become stronger after a fruitful start to the season," the state-owned China Daily said.

"I am very discouraged. Li Na almost got zero points. Too many endorsement contracts! Perhaps she can no longer win any more match," one fan posted on the Chinese version of Twitter, Weibo.


Other fans drew a parallel with her dismal performance and national letdown with that of China's 110 meters hurdler Liu Xiang, who claimed China's first Olympic track gold in 2004 but limped out of the 2008 Beijing Games.

Li did have her supporters.

"Really, she has too much pressure. We must continue to support Li Na and the rainbow will once more be beautiful after the rain. Li will bloom again," posted another fan.

World number one Caroline Wozniacki also offered her support and said the 29-year-old was wise to cash in while she could.

"It's been an amazing season for her. The added sponsorship is just a plus. It's nice for her to know that once she stops playing tennis, she's set. She can do whatever she wants," said the defending China Open champion.

The Dane said sponsorship was not to blame for the pressure on Li.

"It's just tough. There are so many girls out there playing great tennis at the moment. They always want to play their best tennis against you because they know that they have to beat you," she said. "So it's like being a target.

"I'm sure when Li Na looks back on the season she'll be very proud and very happy. I don't think she's looking at the internet too much and reading about herself."

Li's appeal to sponsors is unlikely to be affected and China has few outstanding athletes.

The tennis ace, who is celebrated by young Chinese for her rebellious streak as well as for her tennis, remains the trailblazer for her sport which has enjoyed a surge of interest since she made history in France.

(Editing by John Mehaffey; To query or comment on this story email sportsfeedback@thomsonreuters.com)

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