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, Li’s agent at IMG, told Sports Business Journal. “We could do 25 deals.”
Eisenbud predicted that Li’s endorsements over the next three years could top US$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 US$25 million annually in endorsements.
Not long after her disappointing second-round Wimbledon loss to Sabine Lisicki, IMG announced plans for an exhibition rematch between the two in Wuhan, China, 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 humor she displayed at Melbourne and Paris has garnered fans in the West.
The government in her native Hubei Province showered her with honors and wanted to appoint her deputy head of the provincial tennis administration center, 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 last month.
“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.”