Chinese tennis star Li Na may have just followed her stunning French Open championship with an equally stunning Wimbledon flame out, but she is still a red star on the rise. She has the tabloids eating out of her hands; she has sponsors running around in circles; most of all, she bucked a Communist system that desperately needs her.
Ultimately, she may make Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan look like pikers.
Her mastery of the tabloids is pretty straight forward: she speaks fluent English, and does so with a coy smile; she jokes about her husband's snoring, fired him as her coach, and offers a story of blunt feminism ("If I were a man," she told an interviewer, "I would be as famous as Yao Ming"); she also studied journalism during a two-year hiatus from tennis.
As for sponsors, Haagan Dazs, Rolex, and Nike have made her the highest earning athlete in China. This alone doesn't tell us much. But unlike other athletes who are simple stage dressing for the products being hawked, Li is fully in control of her image. Her Nike slogan says it all: zaojiu ziji. For Nike, this Chinese phrase is meant to be an equivalent for their "make yourself" campaign. But the Chinese is off just enough to give Chinese speakers pause. Zaojiu ziji doesn't mean make yourself; I would translate the phrase to mean "manufacture yourself," which has a whole different meaning in a country that has thousands of workers manufacturing the very t-shirts Li teased Nike for under-producing. As Dave Zirin put it after Li's Grand Slam victory, "part of [China] will cheer and play more tennis [and] a very separate and unequal part will die making those canary-yellow shirts."
The final part of the Li equation is how desperately the Chinese government needs her. The more stories the world sees about Li, the less it will see about a very different sort of Chinese celebrity: dissident artist Ai Weiwei, recently released from months of detention. Those in charge of China's Communist-industrial sports complex are upset that Li bucked them (unlike the obedient Yao Ming who has a bizarre indentured-servant-turned owner relationship with the Shanghai Sharks). But she is a distraction the highest levels of the Communist Party will happily promote.
It's impossible to know what the future holds for Li Na. If she keeps winning, however, she will enter a rare nexus of sports, politics and culture. Like Arthur Ashe and Martina Navratilova before her, she might transcend tennis. Let's hope she manufactures herself into something more than a mere sports star.