Li Na: Can Chinese star usurp Maria Sharapova on sport’s rich list?

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Story highlights

Li Na is one of the world's richest female athletes following success in recent years

The Australian Open champion added $2.4 million in prize money to her wealth

Li is poised to sign more deals, says agent she shares with Maria Sharapova

Li, who will soon turn 32, has 22 million followers on Chinese website Weibo

Melbourne, Australia CNN  — 

Li Na outperformed Maria Sharapova at the Australian Open, but can China’s biggest sporting star now do the almost unthinkable and surpass the Russian as the world’s richest female athlete?

Maybe – and that’s according to the man who represents both players.

“She could,” Max Eisenbud, the duo’s agent, told CNN after Li won her second grand slam title. “It’ll be interesting to see how that shakes up. A lot depends on how she plays and how Maria plays. But they’re both in the same stratosphere, for sure.”

Sharapova has been No. 1 in the earnings department as named by Forbes magazine every year since 2005, the season after she opened her grand slam account as a 17-year-old at Wimbledon.

Li’s triumph in Melbourne last weekend, though, will increase her chances of landing more sponsors in her homeland, the world’s most populous country and its largest second economy. CNN estimated China’s economy to be worth $10 trillion in 2014.

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Li Na wins 'dream' trophy
01:36 - Source: CNN

Li finished at No. 3 in the 2013 Forbes list, one spot behind the dominant force in women’s tennis, Serena Williams. She was No. 2 the year before.

“Maybe we can do another one or two deals,” said Eisenbud. “But we can’t add five more deals for her.”

Li was certainly a popular women’s champion at the season’s first major, being the crowd favorite throughout the fortnight.

Her on-court interviews have always evoked laughter and the soon-to-be 32-year-old especially sparkled during the trophy presentation after downing Slovakia’s Dominika Cibulkova.

There she thanked Eisenbud for making her “rich” and had more words for her husband Jiang Shan. “You are so lucky to find me!” she quipped. As of Monday, the speech had been viewed on YouTube nearly one million times.

Her light-hearted personality, along with the tennis success, makes for a desirable combination for sponsors, according to Michael Stirling, founder of Britain-based Global Sponsors.

“Sponsors will find her progress in winning the Australian Open, together with her public persona of being fun and honest in her interviews, refreshing and engaging,” he told CNN. “Winning the Australian Open will make many more people globally aware of who she is as a player and this will attract brands.”

But overtaking the longer established Sharapova – upset by Cibulkova in the fourth round in Melbourne – might prove difficult.

“The Sharapova brand has been in existence for many years and the essence of it was caught when she won Wimbledon,” Stirling said. “She has built her brand over many years, and provided Sharapova continues to be a top-10 player her brand value remains enduring and more relevant as a global brand.

“Whereas, Li’s brand is a new regional phenomena, which carries significant value in the emerging markets of the Far East and will ripple into other regions of the globe.”

Along with a host of established backers, Sharapova launched her own candy line, “Sugarpova,” two years ago and pulled in $29 million in endorsements and prize money last year, Forbes said, as the Russian once again held top position.

After Li became the first Asian player to win a grand slam singles crown at the 2011 French Open, her value soared. Companies including Samsung, Nike and Mercedes Benz helped Li achieve $18.2 million in last year’s list, Forbes said.

Li counts a following of roughly 22 million on Chinese social media and her popularity is set to increase, according to Renjie Liu, a journalist with Chinese website SINA.

“The people who have the most social media followers in China are movie stars,” he told CNN. “They have something like 80 million. It’s a big difference. But Li Na is right behind them. She’s the top of the sports industry.

“She was quite popular already but after the win it’s getting more and more. People realize she’s not only a tennis player. She’s kind of a national hero. She also represents Chinese women in a very good way so I believe her image is getting bigger not only in China but in front of the world.”

And to think Li almost didn’t play at the Australian Open.

She considered retiring – for a second time – after an early exit at the French Open last May.

Criticism from the Chinese media in the wake of that second-round defeat to American Bethanie Mattek-Sands left her reeling.

“They gave me a very tough time when I played the French Open and it continued to Wimbledon,” Li told reporters.

Li decided to continue and, with famed coach Carlos Rodriguez by her side – he formerly guided seven-time grand slam winner Justine Henin – strung together a solid second half of 2013.

She reached the quarterfinals or better at every tournament after Roland Garros, highlighted by an appearance in the final of the year-end championships in Turkey.

Li was the first to admit she got somewhat lucky in Melbourne, only fending off a match point in the third round when Lucie Safarova missed a makeable backhand down the line.

The unexpected exits of Williams and two-time defending champion Victoria Azarenka meant Li didn’t have to face anyone in the top 20.

But she was unfortunate in last year’s final against Azarenka, falling twice, injuring her ankle and head. The previous year she was beaten by Kim Clijsters, taking the former world No. 1 to three sets in her maiden grand slam final.

More than dollars and cents, Eisenbud said this title was about Li proving she wasn’t a one-slam wonder.

“I don’t think this win is about the money,” he said. “I think it’s a big statement. A lot of girls have won a grand slam but winning that second one puts you in a different category.

“She’s a wealthy girl and will get more deals and that will come, but this win is more about legacy.

“One of the things we’re really looking to do is to solidify her desire to have a tennis academy in China. So that’ll be a really big focus, having some sort of partnership with a property company there.”