She’s China’s biggest sports star—tennis or otherwise—and with her win on Saturday at the Australian Open, worth an estimated US$40 million.
Li Na defeated Slovakia’s Dominika Cibulkova in straight sets, 7-6, 6-0, garnering her second grand slam singles title, and topped that feat with the best victory speech ever.
Her on-court interviews have always evoked laughter and the soon-to-be 32-year-old especially sparkled during Saturday’s trophy presentation, wrote CNN.
Li 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”). As of Monday, the speech had been viewed on YouTube nearly one million times.
The crowd favorite from Wuhan is already one of the most well-known and marketable athletes in the world. She first rose to prominence in 2011 when she won the French Open to become the first Chinese player, man or woman, to win a grand slam singles title.
“Sponsors will find her progress in winning the Australian Open, together with her public persona of being fun and honest in her interviews, refreshing and engaging,” Michael Stirling, founder of Britain-based Global Sponsors, told CNN. “Winning the Australian Open will make many more people globally aware of who she is as a player and this will attract brands.”
Li’s current sponsor portfolio already includes names like Mercedes Benz, Rolex, Nike, Visa, Samsung and Häagen-Dazs, as well as multiple Chinese companies, all of which contributed to endorsement deals worth US$15 million in 2013. Only Maria Sharapova has more endorsement deals. With prize money, Li’s total 2013 earnings were US$18.2 million.
Her payday at Melbourne was US$2.4 million, not only an excellent way to start the new year, but also proof positive to potential sponsors that Li is not just a one-slam wonder. Her brand value has soared.
“Li Na is destined for more grand slams and a place in the Hall of Fame after the Australian Open win cemented her position as the most influential female player of the last decade,” former great Chris Evert told Reuters.
Li counts a following of roughly 22 million on Chinese social media and her popularity is set to increase, according to Renjie Liu, a journalist with Chinese website SINA.
In no small part, Li’s rebellious nature has helped her win legions of Chinese fans.
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, notes Quartz. 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.
“Don’t say I’m doing this for my country’s glory. I do this for me,” Li has said many times. As one Sina Weibo user said, “I don’t think there’s any other Chinese athlete that would dare to speak like that.”
On Twitter, the organizers of the Australian Open said Li was the most popular female player during the tournament in terms of social media attention, with her name mentioned in 214,827 tweets, far ahead of Ana Ivanovic, who was second on the “social leaderboard” rankings with 193,559 mentions.
A good number of those tweets, incidentally, were about Li’s relatively advanced age (for a competitive professional women’s tennis player). She is now officially the oldest Australian Open champion.
“I’m not old,” said Li, who was 31 years 334 days old when she overcame Cibulkova this weekend in the finals. “At the start of tournament everybody [was] talking about my age. I would like to say age is nothing. Still can win the Grand Slam. So [I’m] pretty happy about my age. It means I [have] got more experience on the court.”
Li, now a two-time major champion, moved up one spot this week in the Women’s Tennis Association rankings, to a career-high-tying No. 3, and she trails second-ranked Victoria Azarenka by only 11 points. Serena Williams remains comfortably in the No. 1 position.
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