PARIS – On the table in front of her, the French Open trophy glittered. Bold Chinese characters on her T-shirt read: “Sport changes everything.” And her broad smile showed how thrilled Li Na is to be China’s first Grand Slam tennis champion.
Then, a reporter mentioned the brutal military assault that is taboo back in her native China, “Tiananmen.”
Li’s grin vanished.
“Asking about June 4,” she sputtered later in Chinese, still stunned. “Mad!”
It was pure coincidence that Li’s trailblazing 6-4, 7-6 (0) win over Francesca Schiavone of Italy came exactly 22 years after Chinese soldiers, under orders to clear democracy protesters from Tiananmen Square, shot their way into Beijing on the night of June 3-4, 1989, killing hundreds, or possibly more.
I was in the square that night. And to see Li make history 22 years later on a sunny day in Paris made me think that a dose of personal liberty really does go a long, long way.
The young protesters in Tiananmen basically wanted more freedom.
Li is unusual among Chinese athletes in that she has what they wanted.
And the freedom to make her own choices is one reason – not the only one, but a reason nonetheless – that she is now having unparalleled success late in her tennis career.
So as China’s bright red flag was raised at Roland Garros and the Chinese anthem, “March of the Volunteers,” played, I wondered: Is there a lesson here for those in charge in China? Something about how people can achieve wonderful things when allowed to choose their own destinies and do what they want, when they want, how they want?
Li, strong-willed and with a crisp forehand that proved fearsome on the red French clay, shook herself loose of China’s state-supported sports system in late 2008. She cut a deal that allowed her to choose her own coaches, decide on her own schedule, and keep a much larger slice of the millions she makes. Fittingly, the Chinese tennis authorities’ decision to give Li and three other top women players that liberty has been dubbed the “Fly Alone” policy back in China.
Even before that change, Li was a path-breaker. At Wimbledon in 2006, she was the first Chinese to reach a Grand Slam quarterfinal. That year, she also became the first Chinese to break into the top 30 and then the top 20. So she owes much to the Chinese system that nurtured her.
But Li’s biggest successes have come since she flew that coop. And that, says the Chinese tennis official credited for letting Li and the others go, is no fluke.
“It’s a kind of experiment. We took a lot of risks with this reform. When we let them fly, we didn’t know if they would succeed. That they have now succeeded means our reform was correct,” Sun Jinfang said.
Sun, like Li now, was also a sports pioneer in her day, playing on China’s world-beating women’s volleyball team in the 1980s. Sun said Li’s victory could prompt other officials in China – she mentioned soccer and basketball among sports that could do with reform – to also try new things and loosen the reins.
At her winner’s news conference, Li made a point of thanking Sun.
“Without her reform, then possibly we wouldn’t have achieved this success,” she said.
The pile of gold medals that China reaped at its home Olympics in Beijing in 2008 was a triumph for state-organized sports. By picking talented children at an early age and hot-housing them in sports schools, China has achieved success internationally that otherwise might not have been possible and certainly wouldn’t have come so quickly.
Li is a product of that system, too. Her dad enrolled her in a sports school to play badminton as a kid. He, too, was a badminton player. But, like millions of others, his life was derailed by the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, when Mao Zedong’s fanatical Red Guards ran riot. He never did realize his dream of becoming a Chinese national badminton champion, and so shifted his ambitions to his daughter. He died when she was 14. By then, Li had moved to tennis.
For athletes, being in China’s state coaching programs can be tough. Life can be highly regimented, although somewhat less now than it used to be. In the Chinese media, Li has been critical of the system for being too rigid. At last year’s Australian Open, she spoke about how she was enjoying her new freedom – things like being able to decide for herself when she takes a day off.
To put Li on the spot by mentioning Tiananmen was unfair to her because the military assault remains a subject of discussion so dangerous in China that it would have been practically impossible for her to talk about. Plus, she’s an athlete, not a political activist.
“This is tough,” she said. “I don’t want to answer.”
Still, a historic win 22 years after Tiananmen.
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