Li, Wozniacki: Which One Sells Best for Tennis?

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 …
Zero.

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

About gregcouch

I can talk tennis all day long, and often do. And yet some of the people I talk to about it might rather I talk about something else. Or with someone else. That’s how it is with tennis, right? Sort of an addiction. Sort of a high. I am a national columnist at FoxSports.com and a FoxSports1 TV insider, and have been a columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. In 2010, I was the only American sports writer to cover the full two weeks of all four majors, and also to cover each of the U.S. Masters series events. I’ve seen a lot of tennis, talked with a lot of players, coaches, agents. I watched from a few rows behind the line judge as Serena rolled her foot onto the baseline for the footfault, a good call, at the 2009 U.S. Open. I sat forever watching a John Isner marathon, leaving for Wimbledon village to watch an England World Cup soccer game at a pub and then returning for hours of Isner, sitting a few feet from his wrecked coach. I got to see Novak Djokovic and Robin Soderling joke around on a practice court on the middle Sunday at Wimbledon, placing a small wager on a tiebreaker. Djokovic won, and Soderling pulled a bill out of his wallet, crumpled it into his fist and threw it at Djokovic, who unwadded it, kissed it, and told me, “My work is done here.’’ And when Rafael Nadal won the French Open in 2010, I finished my column, walked back out onto the court, and filled an empty tic tac container with the red clay. I’m looking at it right now. Well, I don’t always see the game the same way others do. I can be hard on tennis, particularly on the characters in suits running it. Tennis has no less scandal and dirt than any other game. Yet somehow, it seems to be covered up, usually from an incredible web of conflicts of interest. I promise to always tell the truth as I see it. Of course, I would appreciate it if you’d let me know when I’m wrong. I love sports arguments and hope to be in a few of them with you here. Personal info: One-handed backhand, serve-and-volleyer. View all posts by gregcouch

7 responses to “Li, Wozniacki: Which One Sells Best for Tennis?

  • Joe

    Wozniacki isn’t particularly good looking, and she sounds like a muppet. She can try to be the next Sharapova or Ivanovic (and my god, isn’t she trying), but I doubt she’ll have much more success in the USA either. She’s not that appealing. And she isn’t partcularly funny either, certainly not as funny as Li – there are only so many monologues you can memorize before it gets old.

    One of the main points of this post seems to be that USA = the only place that matters. But that is completely wrong. There is a reason why Li is one of Nike’s premier and higher paid athletes. It’s because she does have huge appeal in China and Asia. Asia is the new market and the WTA has its eyes set firmly on Asia. So should Li continue to play at the elite level for the near future, she could be one of the most pivotal assets for them in the coming years.

    And you also seem to be suggesting that marketablity = good for the tour. But is it really? Good for Woz, yes. Very good. But people are going to follow the tour just because she smiles a lot and wears a rolex? I think not. I define a player being “good for the tour” as one who can bring new fans to the sport and put bums on seats. All Wozniacki has done thus far is bring more criticism to the WTA. Meanwhile, I’m sure that, thanks to her brilliant tennis and the on-court interviews that have had every crowd thus far in stitches, Li has won a fair few more fans for herself and the sport as a whole.

    Finally, Wozniacki’s US Open final ranks as the worst rated non-AO (because it’s overnight) slam final in history. It will probably be similar for Li in her final, but while something like 5m Danes may have tuned into the match, over the next 24 hours we’ll probably be bombarded with news that hundreds of millions of Asians watched her as she fought for the title on saturday.

    • gregcouch

      Good point about whether marketability really is good for the tour. I agree with you that “good for the tour” means bringing new fans to the game. But I think marketable players have an easier time doing that. So far, Wozniacki has failed to live up to her potential on that. Maybe you’re right, and she doesn’t even have the potential. But no, my main point was not that USA is the only place that matters. In fact, it was about trying to open the eyes of people who see it that way.

      • Sarah

        There are two problems with this article:

        1) You do not clearly state your argument/opinion/point and

        2) You do not make a good case for your argument/opinion/point.

        Reading comments on the 3 websites I’ve found this article on, it’s clear that no one understood your goal was to “open the eyes of people who see it that way [the USA is the only place that matters].” Maybe it’s this sentence that throws them off:

        “[T]ennis needs to find a way to keep U.S. interest.”

        Doesn’t this undercut what you’re trying to argue? If it doesn’t, then how/where do you refute
        this and make it clear that you’re arguing the opposite?

        Assuming that you stated your argument clearly, you still did not write persuasively — a key skill if your goal was to open people’s eyes. Where is the evidence that supports your opinion? So tournaments don’t sell out in Asia — what was the attendance at these tournaments, vs. the capacity of the stadium? Has attendance increased over the years?

        “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.”

        Why do you feel that way? What does that even mean? And how does Wall Street factor into this, aside from the fact that it sounds cool and intellectual to reference it? You need to explain these connections to your readers, otherwise you’re never going to open anyone’s eyes, and everyone will agree that you’re “sexist, xenophobic, whatever.”

  • charlotte

    Greg, you’re right, your article on Li Na, is sexist. As a big tennis fan, who cares about looks, how immature of you! Not everyone is as superficial as you, thank goodness!

    • gregcouch

      Thanks for writing. I’m not saying that when it comes to women’s tennis, I only like to see super models in short skirts. I’m saying I think that’s all that sells big in the U.S. I love a great tennis match no matter who is playing.

  • Rich L

    I’m not sure I agree with this, although if you’re talking about the general population (who only pay attention to tennis during slams or when someone is in the headlines) rather than avid fans who follow the tour and players, I can see your point.

    I do think that rather than a ‘player’, what the tour really needs is a good, consistent rivalry, ala Federer/Nadal or (more appropriately) Chrissy/Martina to sell. Looked like that could have been Kim/Justine, or Kim/Serena a few years ago. Didn’t happen.

    I do like Li Na; she’s got some personality and is refreshingly honest (her reply to the question of motivation when facing match point … “prize money” was just hilarious). The tour needs more personalities to sell, as well as good-looking blondes in short skirts. 😉

    Rich

    • gregcouch

      Thanks for the comment. Tough to know what to say when I agree with every last word you wrote. I was talking about the general male population, saying bluntly that a major selling point for them about women’s tennis is the short skirts.

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