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Li Na's victory catalyst for reform

Breaking away from the pack, Li Na not only became the highest paid sportswoman with the first grand slam singles title in Asia, but challenged China's state training system.

With winnings of 11,4 million yuan (US$ 1,75 million) after being crowned at the French Open, Li has made 20,9 million yuan this season, an amount equal to her past 12 years' total rewards, The Guangzhou Daily reported.

"Li Na's sponsorship money will reach 200 million yuan this year, exceeding that of NBA superstar Yao Ming's 130 million yuan," the paper quoted a famous CCTV host Rui Chenggang as saying.

Following Li's success in such a major event, Sun Jinfang, China's top tennis official said there must be innovations in the state system to encourage more athletes to follow suit.

 

The outspoken Li, when asked about her motivation, has told the media many times, "I play for money."

Li opted out of the state training system after the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games and since then she has had to be responsible for her own financial security. Li's daily expense is at least 10,000 yuan to cover the cost of training, massage and tournaments travel, the International Financial Times said.

However, Li's high profile has earned her a 20 million yuan deal with Nike, along with other sponsors like watch maker Rolex and ice-cream maker Haagen Dazs, even before her victory at the French Open.

Li is poised to be more attractive to domestic companies, which are starting to try to branch into sports celebrity sponsorship, estimated at a value of 150 million yuan, the paper said.

Analysts touted Li as the new icon of Chinese sports. Not only will Li make big money in sponsorships but she will also give impetus to the development of Chinese tennis by putting rackets in more people's hands.

Stacey Allaster, the Women's Tennis Association CEO, lauded Li as a national hero in China and an ambassador like Yao, and suggested she will bring more spotlight, sponsors and marketing chances to China's tennis events.

Li owed much of her big win to her sponsors and, speaking on the podium after her win, she is quoted by the China Youth Daily as saying, "I have to thank my sponsors, the game organizer and my team."

The paper said Li criticized the state training system several times before her departure, "I think it's better to stimulate players with more bonuses," she said, adding that the national team coach didn't help her very much.

But Li was refuted by China's tennis officials who regretted Li made light of the state sports administration.

Now, Li is a professional player. She has her own agent, managing team and is able to choose a coach and decide which tournaments to play in. Li can also cut a bigger share of her own winnings.

The paper thought it was the breakaway that made Li's time at the top finally came, rather than it being a product of the state system.

Li's mode may well pave the way for China's professional sports and, as suggested by Sun, China's sports system must be innovative to better fit in the international arena, the paper quoted.

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