Li Na returned to Roland Garros today, millions of dollars richer and with a place in history as the first Asian to win a tennis Grand Slam singles title. Still, she says she doesn’t feel extra pressure.
While Chinese women had won Olympic gold and Grand Slam titles in doubles, Li Na’s 6-4, 7-6 (7-0) defeat of Italy’s Francesca Schiavone in last year’s French Open final broke the country’s singles drought. Her victory was watched by 116 million viewers in China alone.
Soon after, she signed endorsement deals worth $42 million, her agent Max Eisenbud said, making her the second highest-paid female athlete in the world after Maria Sharapova of Russia. Although life has changed, Li Na said in an interview that she doesn’t feel any different now that she’s a Grand Slam champion.
“The worst thing is that there are so many people who say ‘She has the pressure, she is the defending champion,”’ said Li, wearing a diamond-studded watch that she said was a gift from her sponsor Rolex Group for winning in Paris. She spoke at the Rome Masters shortly before Roland Garros.
“But I would like to tell the truth, I am not young anymore, I am 30 already,” said Li, who started her title defense today with a 6-2, 6-1 win against Romania’s Sorana Cirstea. “I don’t know how many years I can still play. I have to listen to my body and see how it feels. I really do not think about ‘Oh, right now I have to defend those points and this title.’ I just really want to enjoy playing on the court, in front of the fans.”
Also today, Novak Djokovic is playing Italy’s Potito Starace. The top-ranked Serb is trying to become the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to win four majors in a row. Roger Federer of Switzerland, the champion in 2009, beat Germany’s Tobias Kamke 6-2, 7-5, 6-3. Women’s top seed and Australian Open winner Victoria Azarenka of Belarus needed three sets to overcome Italy’s Alberta Brianti, 6-7 (6-8), 6-4, 6-2.
Li, seeded seventh in Paris, said it took her six months to adjust to her new status as one of China’s most famous athletes. She lost in the second round of Wimbledon last June, the opening round of the U.S. Open in August and the fourth round of the Australian Open in January.
“You lose your time, because you have to give time to the sponsors,” said Li. “I lost my private time.”
Although Li said she now gets recognized wherever she goes, the attention is strongest in her home nation.
“I was eating in a restaurant in China, and some fans would come up to me and say ‘Oh, Li Na is eating.’ But I still have to eat, like any other normal person. But some people now think I am different,” she said.
Since Roland Garros, Li has signed seven deals with companies including German carmaker Daimler AG’s (DAI) Mercedes-Benz brand and Chinese insurance company Taikang Life Insurance Co.
Her agent Eisenbud, a vice president at IMG Tennis who signed Li in November 2009, also represents Sharapova, who earns about $26 million a year from prize money and endorsements, according to Forbes magazine.
Li Na wears the Mercedes-Benz and Taikang logos as patches on the sleeves of her outfit, made by her clothing and footwear sponsor, Nike Inc. (NKE:US) She is the only tennis player allowed to do so by Nike, the world’s largest sporting-goods company.
“I used to look at Serena Williams and Maria and I was like ‘Wow, they are stars’ because they both had huge big sponsors,” Li said. “I now have 12 sponsors after I won the French Open. Max was working hard. I was really shocked. But of course, the more sponsors come for me, it does mean you are more public.”
Li has regained her form on European clay this year. She was runner-up in Rome last week, losing in three sets to Sharapova, and made quarterfinals in Stuttgart and Madrid.
Li is looking forward to playing on the main Court Philippe Chatrier again.
“The best thing about going back to Roland Garros is that you remember the good things from last year,” Li said. “I remember seeing the Chinese flag on the center court, and listening to the Chinese national anthem. It was very exciting.”
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