From my column on AOL Fanhouse
Li Na is not going to sell. Let’s just cut right to it. If that’s sexist, xenophobic, whatever. She has all the personality and color and warmth in the world, but she speaks broken English and doesn’t have drop dead good looks. In the U.S., that stuff is mandatory. She is not going to sell women’s tennis under any circumstances.
Caroline Wozniacki might. She is clearly trying to be the next Maria Sharapova. She is No. 1, and pushes her good looks and blond hair and short skirts. She’s just 20 years old, and has a chance to lead women’s tennis for years, but she still has to prove she belongs at the top.
That’s what Thursday’s semifinal at the Australian Open was about. Different marketing hopes from different hemispheres. Li won, 3-6, 7-5, 6-3 to become the first person from China to advance to a major final. She’ll play Kim Clijsters on Saturday.
And after the match, Li climbed right into every tennis fan’s heart with her smile and wit. She said she couldn’t sleep the night before the because her husband snored so loud.
“I think today,” she said, “he can stay in the bathroom.”
But did I get that right? Did tennis need Wozniacki? It seems that way to me, but there is another side of the world to consider.
“Maybe many young players or children will see (me),” Li said, “and think ‘Maybe one day we can do the same, or even better than her.'”
She’s talking about kids in China, of course. Tennis is a world sport, and players from all over do come together. This was a match in Australia between one player from Denmark and one from China. The other semi had Belgium against Russia.
But despite all of that coming-together, sometimes the view from everywhere can be narrow. Wozniacki is not going to sell in China.
One thing is sure: Women’s tennis is in desperate need of a top player, a leader. Wozniacki has not won a major. Serena Williams is the best, but she doesn’t play enough. Clijsters has been dominating the tour, but she has already retired once, and this comeback can’t be expected to last too much longer.
The question for tennis is whether Chinese interest and yuan is as important as U.S. interest and Wall Street money.
My feeling is that the U.S. money tends to build up bigger, faster. And tennis needs to find a way to keep U.S. interest.
But the tours are clearly seeing China as a hugely under-tapped market. Both tours doggedly keep tournaments there after the U.S. Open, requiring players to go when they are wanting rest. Meanwhile, TV pictures show empty stands.
“It depends on what tournament,” a female reporter from China told me. “They like Federer, Nadal, the men’s tournaments.
With the women, they think it is about short skirts.”
Some things are the same everywhere, apparently. Anyone on Wall Street would say exactly the same thing about U.S. interest.
I would love to tell you that this match was about great tennis. The match was definitely close, but it was not at a high level.
Wozniacki, who either cannot or will not attack the ball, does absolutely nothing that can hurt an opponent. She waited out points, hoping Li would miss before hitting a winner.
That’s how Wozniacki always does it, and it works beautifully against all but a handful of top players. So she is perfectly set to keep a high ranking, and not win majors, for years.
Li almost did miss more than she made, but in the end tipped the scales just barely to her side.
She said her plan was to try to hit winners because “I know she didn’t have a winner shot.” Wozniacki had a match point in the second set, “and I didn’t take it.”
The perfect description. She doesn’t take anything. Then, in the deciding set, Wozniacki’s grand total of winners was …
She is going to have to win majors if she wants to be a leader, and if she has any hope of being Sharapova. But unless Sharapova herself regains confidence, I don’t see anyone else who can do it.
Meanwhile, Li is already about to turn 29, and isn’t going to rule women’s tennis.
A few years ago, the women’s golf tour was so concerned about the influx of Korean players with broken English, or none, at the top of the game that it actually considered fining players if they didn’t learn to speak English.
But Li can bring a huge number of people into the game.
China’s government didn’t begin a push into tennis until after the 2004 Olympics, when Li Ting and Sun Tiantian won the women’s doubles gold medal. To China, the Olympics are a bigger deal in tennis than the majors, a Chinese reporter explained to me.
Li is seen as a rebel in China, or at least a representative of a new generation. She had disputes with the Chinese tennis federation, upset that it was setting up her schedule, making all of her plans, choosing her coaches, keeping 60 percent of her earnings.
In 2008, Li and a few other Chinese players were allowed to leave the state sports system and run their own careers. Also: keep most of their money.
Now, if Li wins Saturday, the game’s popularity will go way up in China.
“We know China tennis (hasn’t been pushed for) a long time,” she said. “So, just the beginning to start. I wish after three or five years, maybe China (will be) like Russia, and they have many players come through.”
Tennis could boom. The U.S. wouldn’t notice.
— Please follow me on Twitter @gregcouch