"巴黎，我来了" Translation: "Paris, Here I come."
That was the message Li Na posted on her Facebook page on May 25th. The message captioned a photo of a blue sky, likely of the view from her flight. On June 4th, as news of China focuses on, let's say, less proud moments, Li Na will challenge to make the quarterfinals for the French Open, the grand slam event she won last year. It was a single championship win that put $42 million in endorsement deals in her pocket and made Li the second highest earning female athlete in the world.
Ah, pity Michael Chang.
In 1989, at just 17, Hong Kong tennis pro Michael Chang was the youngest ever winner of the French Open. Though he later made other slam finals, it was his only such title. (The win came within 24 hours of the bloody Tiananmen Square incident.) Chang, the child of Chinese parents, was an immediate superstar in China. A 1996 poll of Chinese consumers ranking the top 20 favorite celebrities found Chang as the only athlete amongst the bunch.
But the buying power of the Chinese consumer in 1996 is another world from what it is today. By no means did Chang go hungry. He was wildly successful drawing endorsements, pulling down somewhere around $8 million a year for a good number of years in 1990s. But in an era when an athlete like Jeremy Lin — who has never won a championship or even done much beyond have a very good few weeks in the NBA — is plowed with endorsement offers from Nike on down because brands see Linsanity as a ticket to the China market, Chang missed out.
Amongst other things, Li Na is the face of Nike's recent 用运动 "Use Sport" campaign in China. But Nike isn't the only one who wants to "use Li Na" (用李娜). Just how much pull does Li have? She is the only athlete sponsor Nike allows to adorn her uniform with the patches of other sponsors, Mercedes-Benz and Taikang, China's life insurance giant. In addition to mopping up endorsement money from foreign brands, Li also represents Chinese ones, such as Kun Lun water. (An interesting side story is how Li's success has opened debate about China's state-run athlete development program.)
With only one grand slam win, Li is number 87 on Forbes' "World's Most Powerful Celebrities List," just two spots behind Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling. And Li's "press rank" is even higher, all the way up at 37. All despite the fact that few in the west could identify who she is. All of this before the end of the French Open and before the 2012 Olympics, which will be Li's last. A gold medal in London could make Li China's most famous athlete, a position currently held by gymnast Li Ning.
Back to Facebook. Because the country wants to develop its a homegrown version, Facebook is blocked in China, Li's homeland. So one must assume the vast majority of the nearly 1,000 "likes" and more than 160 comments — all supportive — on the Paris post came from Li's international fan base. While the brands that have invested in Li have done so for the China exposure alone, could Li Na be the first Chinese athlete to collect a strong international following and global name recognition?
A few Chinese athletes have flirted with global reach, NBA star Yao Ming being one of the most notable. Yao was likable, if terribly wooden and uncharismatic. Apple used him as a pitchman in 2003, though it was opposite a "little person" and amounted to little more than a stunt, freak show casting.
There is reason to believe Li has what it takes. She may have been brought up in the rigid Chinese state athletic development system, yet she's feisty, openly tattooed, and once got into a spat with Chinese members of a game's audience over the fans' outbursts. This attitude has led numerous western to often call Li a "tennis rebel." In a move that shows just how much her image matters as much as her play, even the state run news service, Xinhua, has called Li a "rebel with a racket."
And yet, Chinese brands — celebrity or consumer goods — have had a hard road of it when it comes to acceptance in the West. Li Ning, the athletic wear brand named after the gold medal gymnast Li Na may unseat, has recently retooled its approach to the US market after a promising, but ultimately disappointing go of it after 2008.
"May god be by your side!" wrote one Facebook user on Li's post. That would be great, but what about, for now, just the rest of the world?