Tennis stars come in all shapes, sizes, and personalities. Some of them, like Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova, burst into the spotlight as teenagers and stay at the top of the sport throughout their careers. But there are others who come into their own on and off-the-court much later in their careers. And Li Na was one of them.
For those of us fortunate enough to witness her transformation from just another Chinese player with solid groundstrokes into the funny, charismatic, complicated two-time Grand Slam champion right before our eyes, we wondered what could have been had she broken into the bigger league much earlier.
Li Na’s legacy will continue to be written well after retirement. ReutersLi Na’s legacy will continue to be written well after retirement.
After all, she did reach the top 150 in the world rankings way back in 2000 before injuries forced her to take a two-year break, during which she studied journalism. And what if we had a few more years to enjoy and cherish her on-court interviews in broken English, her athletic game and compact two-handed backhand.
But who knows how Li Na’s career would have played out had she broken through earlier. Would we have gotten to see the woman behind the tennis player, who let a stadium-full of Melbourne fans into the bedroom habits of her husband?
Would she find success and fame too difficult and lonely and quit before realising her full potential like her Asian counterpart Kimiko Date-Krumm (who retired at the young age of 26) did way back in 1996. Would she have ended up with more Grand Slam titles to her name and become the world’s top-ranked player? There’s no way of knowing.
Had Li Na been from anywhere but China, she would not have attracted much attention for her decision to break away from her national tennis association, or for getting a red rose tattoo on her chest or for her angry outbursts on the court. But Li Na would not have been the icon she is had she come from anywhere but China either.
At a time when tennis was a relatively unknown sport in mainland China, Li Na broke new ground ever so often – and didn’t stop until she reached the top. In 2004, she went from being unranked to becoming the first Chinese player to win a WTA singles title. At the 2006 Wimbledon Championships, she became the first Chinese player to reach a Grand Slam singles quarter-final.
At the 2010 Australian Open, she became the first Chinese player to reach a Grand Slam singles semi-final and also the first Chinese player to break into the World’s Top 10. At the 2011 Australian Open, she became the first Asian player, male or female, to reach a Grand Slam singles final.
And five months later, went one better when she claimed her historic French Open title. Her win in the Roland Garros final over Francesca Schiavone was watched by an unprecedented 330 million people (most of them from China) worldwide. Tennis officials and corporate sponsors were quick to take note of the region and Na’s potential.
The WTA opened their own regional office in Beijing and now have ten tournaments in the country, as compared to two just six years ago. Next week’s WTA Premier Mandatory event is being held in Na’s hometown Wuhan and has attracted all the top 20 ranked players in the world (well, now with the exception of Li herself).
Despite certain times when the Chinese fans turned on her for what they perceived was her lack of effort on court or her disrespect to fans, Li Na has become one of the most popular women in her country, and across the world.
But her story won’t end here. Li Na plans to open her own academy back home, provide scholarships to young Chinese players, get involved in the ‘Right to Play’, an organization dedicated to helping underprivileged children overcome challenges through sports.
Tennis stars come in all sizes, shapes, and personalities. Some of them stay in the spotlight throughout their playing careers and then fade into oblivion. But there are some others whose legacies continue to be written well after they hang up their rackets. And Li Na is one of them.