Thursday, 25 Sep 2014 23:27 | By Mark Dreyer
As the dust from Li Na’s unexpected retirement settles, the focus now turns toward who will be her successor – not just on the tennis court, but in all of Chinese sports.
While women’s tennis in China is in a pretty healthy state, it has been left to Japanese player Kei Nishikori, a US Open finalist last month, to become the new flag bearer for Asian tennis. That might go down well in his home country, but in today’s political climate, Nishikori won’t find much support in China. Similarly, although the ATP will be happy to have an Asian player to promote at their tournaments around the world, the WTA will want to find someone in the women’s game to replace Li on their posters.
Ever since winning the French Open in 2011, Li has grown into the biggest sports star in China, with no one even coming close to rivaling her image internationally. While badminton star Lin Dan might need a security detail when he ventures out in China, he could comfortably wander around the streets of any major international city untroubled – except perhaps by Chinese tourists.
The most likely contender to fill Li’s shoes as China’s next global sports star is swimmer Sun Yang. The 22-year-old, a two-time gold medalist at the London Olympic Games, has another five World Championship titles to his name, and is currently in South Korea at the Asian Games.
While he undoubtedly has the talent to continue his dominance on the world stage, he is also no stranger to controversy, having spent time in detention for driving without a license and previously banished from the national team for feuding with his coaches.
His latest stunt has been a TV commercial in which he taunts his Korean rival Park Tae-hwan with the fact that he broke Park’s record, wondering whether Park can now rise to the occasion in Incheon. Sun ends by asking that Park at least keeps their battle close, given Park’s on home turf. The arrogant tone has riled many in South Korea – and even some in China – but from a marketer’s perspective, Sun is a breath of fresh air.
With so many Chinese athletes viewed – internationally at least – as faceless robots manufactured on the State-run production line, Sun, like Li, stands out for having a distinctive personality. If he can stay out of trouble without losing his edge, the world could be seeing plenty more of him in years to come.