FRENCH OPEN: Champion Li Na, Nike, 1.3 Billion People. Tennis has Match Made in Heaven

Li Na becomes China's first tennis champ, wins French Open


Just change it, Nike. Change it right now, or add it as a new campaign for Li Na. Li won the French Open Saturday, beating Francesca Schiavone 6-4, 7-6 (7-0) to become the first Chinese tennis player to win a major singles championship. It was thrilling, it was fascinating. Have you finished enjoying the moment, tennis?

Too bad. Time to get to work. You had better have a massive marketing campaign in mind. Li has already invented one, if accidentally by a slight language barrier.

“Just before the start (of the) French Open, I mean, Nike China, they do a T-shirt for me,’’ she said. “They have (in) Chinese, `Be yourself.’ So they asked me, “Is (it) OK to wear this shirt?’ I say, `Of course. Why not?’ They only make the T‑shirt for ‑‑ 30 T‑shirt(s) (for) all of China. I think now they should make more.’’

Oh. My. Are you listening Nike? Are you listening tennis? She has just handed you a masterpiece. Li was likely talking about the Nike Campaign “Make yourself.’’ The company has hired famed photographer Annie Leibovitz to help. And maybe that will be a great campaign. Nike’s usually are.

But how about using her words? Li Na, and “Be Yourself’’ in Chinese. Think: Tennis, much like golf and plenty of other businesses, sees China as the great under-tapped market. It has put tournaments there, but the stands are half empty. Now, China has its first tennis star, a 29-year old who broke from the Chinese tennis federation a few years ago, broke from the state run system, and developed herself. She has a funny personality. She has tattoos. And she can appeal to the young generation, which is trying to break, in some ways, from traditional Chinese culture.

And here comes Li Na and a campaign: “Be yourself.’’

“That’s bold,’’ said Darren Rovell, CNBC’s sports business reporter. When Li spoke, I sent a direct message to Rovell, a friend, via Twitter to ask what he thinks. “It’s a risky move. `Be yourself.’ That’s not what the government is about. The government is about the collective. But that’s what China’s youth is striving to be – individuals. And there’s no doubt that is being allowed to happen.’’

Li is seen as a rebel of sorts in China, or at least a representative of today’s youth. China didn’t push tennis until the 2004 Olympics, when Li Ting and Sun Tiantian – have you heard of them? Me neither – won the doubles gold medal. In China, major tennis championships weren’t exactly big deals. They knew the Olympics, though. And while a women’s doubles title in the Olympics would go unnoticed in the U.S., unless it came from the Williams sisters, it did create a small spark in China.

Li had a shaky relationship with the Chinese federation, upset with it controlling her scheduling, her training, her plans. Also, it took 60 percent of her earnings. In 2008, the federation allowed some athletes to go on their own, which she did. At the Australian Open in 2010, Li said the federation now takes just 12 percent.

It was a great example of how a little personal freedom could lead to so much. She reached the final of the 2011 Australian Open, her first major final, losing to Kim Clijsters. The match drew 17 million viewers in China, according to CSM Media Research-KantarSport. It was the most watched tennis match ever in China, until the French semifinals on Thursday, when Li beat Maria Sharapova to an average audience of 14.3 million. By match point, it was 25 million.

Li was strong throughout most of the match Saturday. She dominated the first set, despite the close score. Schiavone was not into the match somehow. Maybe Li was squashing her. It looked to be a blowout until Schiavone suddenly fired up, and began changing paces and styles in her usual way. Meanwhile, Li was getting nervous.

“Of course I was nervous,’’ Li said. “But I didn’t want to show the opponent. I was a little bit cheating.’’

By “cheating’’ she meant “acting.’’

Li served at 5-6 in the second set, and her backhand was called wide. That would have given Schiavone a set point. Instead, the call was over-ruled by the chair umpire. Li didn’t lose another point.

Women’s tennis, in dire need of something to sell, has a big chance here. It is beating other international sports to a Chinese star. It’s not that China will suddenly be tennis-crazy, but at the very least, this can start a grass roots campaign with kids there. But at this year’s Australian Open, I asked a female reporter from China about how her country saw tennis, and why tournaments there didn’t draw big crowds.

“It depends on what tournament,’’ the reporter said. “They like Federer, Nadal, the men’s tournaments. With the women, they think it is about short skirts.’’

That’s a big part of the sales pitch in the U.S., too. It’s a good guess that it took a real tennis buff in the U.S. to pay attention to Saturday’s final. It won’t be easy for American sports fans to accept, but tennis might be about to start a boom without them. Li arrives with Nike, 1.3 billion people and a built-in slogan.


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 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

6 responses to “FRENCH OPEN: Champion Li Na, Nike, 1.3 Billion People. Tennis has Match Made in Heaven

  • Michelle

    Greg Couch, you’re an idot!

  • may

    Greg you are one of the biggest J.As that I’ve heard or read about. You must be deeply in love with Venus and Serena to always be going after them even when it makes no sense to do so. They are the only ones who are noticed for winning the doubles olympic gold medal, no one said anything when Federer and Warwrinker won no one noticed, that is why we hear about it almost everytime one of them plays a match. Sharapova is not even an American and if she had won olympic gold the world would have stopped with the added fame and popularity that would have followed. You are upset because no other American has ever won doubles at the olympics .

    • gregcouch

      What’s amazing to me is that every time I write about the Williams sisters, people tell me A) I hate them and am racist or B) I love them and am a flaming liberal. I totally disagree with you that anyone outside of real tennis buffs has any idea that Roger Federer won an Olympic doubles title, at least outside his own country. I doubt you find more than .01 percent of Americans have even heard of Stan Wawrinka. In fact, you say I’m upset that no other American has ever won doubles at the Olympics. I can tell you this honestly: I had no idea that no other American had ever won Olympic doubles until I just read it in your comment. Maybe I should be careful to be clear when I’m talking about the U.S. But in the U.S., if Mattek-Sands and Oudin win Olympic gold, it will not be a huge deal, and it certainly won’t spark interest in the sport in this country the way it did in China


    Well, I think Couch might be getting a raw deal from some of the people posting here. This article seems fairly objective. What bothers me is that I’ve seen so few from him ( not that they don’t exist) that were so unremittingly positive about the Williams sisters. Couch did produce a heart-warming, beautifully written piece on the Williams sisters just before they were going for a 4th major doubles win in a row. But it seems that sometimes ( and maybe I’m wrong here) he feels like he has to capitulate to what he knows is a racist contingent out there.

    I also disagree with his take on women’s tennis’ popularity here. I know for a fact there were times when Venus or Serena’s Saturday final drew higher ratings than the men’s SUNDAY final — and THAT’S saying something! Officials at that stunning Australian Open when Serena came back after injury and a period of mourning her sister’s death, said that those were the highest tv ratings for the Australian Open in NORTH AMERICAN HISTORY! And those officials credited Serena Williams’s amazing, “unlikely” run to victory! Goooo, Venus!! Gooooo, Serena!! Goooooo, Williams!!

    • gregcouch

      Serena is inconsistent to me. She would be a fine new standard for Miss America, because she’s smart, strong, beautiful, fit, successful, and not a size 0. She sends, for the most part, a great message to my daughter. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve written that. But she also sends plenty of negative messages. It doesn’t send a good messsage to my daughter about body image when Serena lies about her weight by 50 pounds. What for? And to those of us who were sitting right on the baseline, behind the line judge, Serena’s footfault at that US Open was clear as day. Not only that, but she had no idea whether or not she footfaulted. Yet she berated, threatened and dropped f-bombs on the line judge. She bullied that tiny woman. Then when she wasn’t even suspended for it the way McEnroe was when he did far less than she did, but instead only fined — fining rich people means nothing — she complained that the tennis federation was sexist. Exactly how many people does she need to tear down for her mistake anyway? So it’s hard to write “unremittingly” positive about her. I write both sides of it. In her case, I end up writing a lot negative and a lot positive. So some people think I love her and some think I hate her. I don’t look at it like that. Mostly, I write positive things about Venus, but for some reason, when i write something negative about Serena, people think it’s negative about “the Williams Sisters.” They are two people, not one. As for the popularity of women’s tennis, I have never suggested that it’s low when the Williams sisters are playing. They haven’t played in a year. When they play, people care, people watch. As i’ve written a bunch of times, they are the greatest thing that ever happened to women’s tennis. They draw in casual fans in the U.S., for sure. Take them out of the game, though, and now how popular is women’s tennis in the U.S.?

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