• Li Na

Li Na (Photo : Getty Images)

Retired Chinese tennis star Li Na received an endorsement deal for a China-exclusive signature collection from Nike, making her the first female Chinese athlete to have such a deal with the global sportswear brand.

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The big endorsement deal came nearly three years after Li, a two-time Grand Slam champion, retired.

Having a signature Nike collection puts Li at the same level as big-name American athletes like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James.

According to a response by Nike that was sent to The Wall Street Journal, the deal is aimed at honoring for her "trailblazing determination" and in order to encourage more girls to follow in her footsteps,

The 35-year-old Li has been endorsing Nike since two decades ago. She also endorses seven other prominent brands, including Mercedes-Benz cars and Rolex watches.

In a survey co-released in December by Kantar Millward Brown, a marketing research agency, Li was ranked as the most bankable Chinese athlete, ahead of basketball star Yao Ming and swimming sensation Ning Zetao. She has over 22 million on China's Weibo platform, which functions like Twitter.

Chirantan Ray of Kantar Millward Brown noted that Li's endorsement will bring place attention and create added opportunities for tennis at the grassroots level in China.

While actors and singers usually get the big advertisement deals in China, athletes are becoming a bigger draw due to the government push to promote professional sports and the increasing popularity of fitness activities among the country's middle class.

A mother of two, Li said that she was surprised about topping the ranking. Many other well-known female Chinese athletes disappear from view after retirement, with some taking on government careers or marrying into privileged families.

Li said she is not eyeing a governments post but would be open to heading her tennis academy and is also thinking about going into business.