Smiling, Li Na walks over to the window of the 54th floor of the Westin Hotel in the bustling city centre of Chongqing. She has just returned from a family holiday on the tropical island of Hainan and already has a double rendezvous: with Chongqing and a brilliant blue Mercedes-Benz GLC. With a clap of her hands, she bids farewell to her husband and two children, who ride the lift all the way to the top with us to marvel at the dizzyingly high pool. “Bye,” says Li Na in Chinese. “Mummy has to work.”
Mercedes-Benz Brand Ambassador Li Na has popularised tennis in China.
At the age of six, she began training regularly: first badminton, then tennis.
The 36-year-old was once ranked world No. 2 in women’s tennis, won the 2011 French Open and the 2014 Australian Open. Time magazine featured her in the top-100 list of the world’s most influential women after she made the sport popular throughout the whole of Asia.
A feature film is currently in the making, documenting her rise to tennis-icon status. She has long been regarded as a superstar in China.
The 54th floor offers a breathtaking view of the city – skylines, bridges, the Yangtze River. Li Na grew up in Wuhan, one of the most populous cities in China, but now lives in the capital Beijing. This is her first time in Chongqing. “Did you know that the name of the city literally means ‘double joy’? I’m sure we’re going to have a lovely day together.” Luckily, it’s not supposed to be too hot. Only 38 degrees Celsius. Due to the heat in summer, Chongqing is also often referred to as the “oven city”. She circles the brand-new car with curiosity; a long wheelbase version is expected to be released soon in China. Before we head off, Li Na swaps her stilettos for a safe pair of driving shoes.
Chongqing: with a population of 38 million spread over an area the size of Austria, the gigantic metropolis at the confluence of the Yangtze and Jialing is the most populous region in the world. Located in the heart of China on the old Silk Road, the city boasts annual growth rates of over 10 per cent – making it one of the strongest economic drivers in China. Asia’s answer to Silicon Valley is right here. No other place builds as many cars – over three million were built here in 2016 – and one in two laptops sold worldwide comes from the boomtown, whose population grows by 6,000 every day.
State-of-the-art luxury up front, great freedom at the back – the GLC.
Placed under the direct administration of central government a good 20 years ago, the special economic zone is home to not one but seven cities with an impressive skyline – each of which would be a millions-strong city in Europe – plus thousands of bridges, hundreds of thousands of restaurants and countless palm parks. “It’s perfect,” says Li Na, taking a sideways glance at the SUV. “I think the city, the car and I have a few things in common: drive, energy, a kind of coolness, I hope.” So, how long has she been a brand ambassador for Mercedes-Benz? “Since 2011, when I won my first Grand Slam,” she replies, taking a sip of bottled water. “I liked the slogan: ‘The best or nothing’. That was my maxim, too: to be the best. I would have been, as well, if I hadn’t been so prone to injury.” By this she means her right knee, which was ultimately what ended her career – at 32. Much of the few million dollars she won in prize money was donated to charitable causes.
On the way to the traditional district of Hongyadong, she tells us how she hardly ever plays tennis these days. Apparently, she doesn’t miss the tough competition at all. Nor the pressure of always having to be the strongest. “Nothing beats a nice cold shandy after a run. I enjoy spending time at home, relaxing, shopping. My family is my new number one.” How did it feel having over 100 million Chinese people celebrating with you at home on TV? Li Na parks the GLC with the help of the reversing camera. “Oh,” she says, “I just did my job.” As was always the case with Li Na, her responses tend to come with a hint of irony. It was no coincidence that her first role model was American tennis ace Andre Agassi with his colourful clothes and lion-mane hairstyle – “because he stood out from the crowd.” She learnt a lot from him as a little girl, that it was all right to be a little rough around the edges, to have character. And for tennis: attack is the best line of defence.
Mixed doubles: Li Na at the wheel of the brilliant blue GLC.
The terraced old quarter Hongyadong on the banks of the river is a popular spot in Chongqing.
In Hongyadong she takes a walk through the narrow, terraced alleyways. A photo by the waterfall with a view of the opera on the other side of the river. Her minders fear the superstar could be discovered by selfie-hunters at such a popular place. Social networks are already abuzz with talk of her doing a photo shoot in Chongqing. But everything remains calm.
The traffic on the gigantic city’s well-constructed roads halts temporarily then continues to flow. Many cars can be seen driving without number plates. People say this is typical in Chongqing. The authorities can barely keep up with the amount of new vehicle registrations. While the number of cars in China is growing rapidly, just 60 to 70 of every 1,000 inhabitants actually own a car – compared to 700 of every 1,000 inhabitants in Germany or the US. “We are catching up. Just like in many types of sport,” says Li Na, cheerfully driving the GLC while blowing a strand of hair from her forehead.
Sometimes she pulls over and takes a few photos herself with her smartphone – “for the family.” She has set the air conditioning to 22 degrees Celsius, while the thermometer outside climbs towards 40. Air conditioning is essential in such tropical summers. When asked if our tour is too exhausting for her, Li Na coolly replies: “I’m a fighter.”
The tennis star in the millions-strong metropolis.
She travelled the world playing tennis, so which places does she like outside of China? “Small cities,” she says mischievously. “London, Paris, Berlin. To us, every city in Europe is a small city. They are old and peaceful with a sense of inner harmony. Unlike Chongqing, which is a fast-paced, bustling city, constantly in motion. I feel a positive, very familiar energy here.” Fresh water is handed out. Li Na has brought along a snack. “Dried plums with honey and a pinch of salt. Please try! But don’t spill any on the seat.”
The drive from Chongqing’s Opera House over to the trendy old district of Eling Er Chang takes slightly longer but is well worth it. Lots of creative people, cafes, food trucks and young women with parasols line the streets where huge factories once printed newspapers and money. In the afternoon, Li Na returns to her family. How was it? “I like the spirit here,” she says. “There are so many different sides to discover.” The GLC gets a pat on the back, myself a firm handshake – and a smile. “I really enjoyed it!”
A must-see: once a bleak industrial quarter, Eling Er Chang is now a trendy district.