When Time Journal unveiled its checklist of the 100 most influential individuals on this planet in 2013, nestled amongst icons from varied fields was China’s tennis sensation Li Na. Past her success on the court docket, Li stood as a testomony to her nation’s shifting cultural panorama, defying conventional norms and championing a brand new period of resilience.
Li, along with her pioneering spirit, helped tennis explode in China, charming audiences and securing her place amongst tennis legends and iconic figures. As Chris Evert stated on the time, she transcended the game very like Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova as soon as did.
A decade later, her affect stays simple.
At this 12 months’s US Open, Zheng Qinwen, the rising star from China, was requested to amplify some particulars of her origin story. Rising up, what was her first recollection of Li or any function mannequin?
“You simply say the best title,” she stated. “Truly it was Li Na. If you wish to say the primary reminiscence, as a result of when she received the  French Open, the true first time, the primary Asian who received a Grand Slam, that offers lots to younger youngsters, particularly for me.
“In that second I begin to suppose, ‘Oh, as an Asian, we’re additionally capable of win a Grand Slam at a giant stage like that.’ Earlier than that, tennis isn’t so common in China. I imply, my dad and mom didn’t know what’s tennis earlier than I begin to play. That’s true.”
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Li was all the time forward of her time, producing a stirring string of watershed occasions for Asian tennis gamers — each female and male. She captured that unprecedented Grand Slam title at Roland Garros and, three years later, a second on the Australian Open.
Off the court docket, Li’s path earlier in her profession was usually overshadowed by state interventions, dictating lots of her decisions and meddling in her private life. Sad with these constraints, Li voiced her emotions, difficult the norms.
Quickly after the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, Chinese language tennis gamers had been lastly capable of take management of their schedules, select their very own groups and maintain on to extra of their earnings, a departure from the previous system the place they had been compelled at hand over 65% to the federal government. This shift marked a big transformation.
Li’s recreation flourished. She turned a staple within the High 10 and would go on to win two Grand Slam titles.
Because the Hologic WTA Tour continues to have fun its 50th season with a 1000 occasion in Beijing, let’s revisit the ground-breaking accomplishments of the charming and witty, self-deprecating athlete.
Simply as Venus and Serena Williams opened up a world of prospects for a youthful era of People, Li confirmed rising Chinese language gamers what was attainable on the worldwide stage. Contemplating China is a gigantic nation with a inhabitants hovering previous 1.4 billion, this was no small factor. It’s an untapped useful resource beginning to present indicators of awakening.
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The fingerprints of Li Na might be seen all around the WTA Tour rankings. There are 5 gamers within the High 100 from China, all of their 20s: No.23 Zheng Qinwen, No.34 Zhu Lin, No.37 Wang Xinyu, No.57 Wang Xiyu, No.95 Wang Yafan.
The swift growth of tennis in China, as seen in quite a few WTA and ITF comparatively new occasions, is straight attributable to Li’s success. This made the trail a lot simpler for younger Chinese language gamers as they labored their approach up the skilled tennis ladder.
Zheng, a robust 5-foot-10 athlete who is barely 20 years previous, appears certain for the High 10. She reached the quarterfinals of the current US Open, defeating Ons Jabeur within the fourth spherical and received her first title earlier this 12 months in Palermo. And there’s extra incoming expertise: No.119 Bai Zhuoxuan, solely 20, certified at Ningbo earlier than pushing eventual finalist Diana Shnaider to a few units within the first spherical.
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You can even credit score Li with the breakthrough achievements of Zhang Zhizhen on the lads’s facet. A 12 months in the past, he turned the primary Chinese language man ever to be ranked among the many ATP’s High 100 gamers and has been as excessive as No.52. Earlier this 12 months, Wu Yibing turned the second-highest-ranked Chinese language man ever, reaching No.54.
Contemplating each the WTA and ATP successes, it may be strenuously argued that this has been the best 12 months ever for Chinese language tennis.
“Clearly the assumption,” stated Wang Xinyu, who Thursday misplaced a Spherical of 16 match to Maria Sakkari in Beijing. “She was the primary one to do it, so for all of the Chinese language gamers, we began to consider we might do it too. Additionally ranging from there, we began getting extra help. Extra individuals had been getting concerned in tennis and tennis turned extra common.”
Li was born in 1982, in Wuhan, Hubei. Her father, Li Shengpeng, was knowledgeable badminton participant and Li Na quickly adopted that path on the age of 6. However two years later, on the suggestion of a youth coach, switched to tennis. By the age of 15, she was a member of the nationwide staff.
Sponsored by Nike, Li spent practically a 12 months on the John Newcombe Academy in Texas, which gave her a vastly totally different perspective from the Chinese language system. After turning skilled in 1999 on the age of 16, she left the nationwide staff for a interval of research and earned a bachelor’s diploma in journalism. Sad with the quite a few restrictions imposed on her, together with the distribution of prize cash, she left the staff in 2008, a courageous transfer at the moment.
By way of her tennis profession, Li was by no means afraid to do what she felt was proper. Whereas her husband, Jiang Shan, initially served as her coach, she made the controversial choice to rent a sequence of coaches from exterior the Chinese language system. Thomas Hogstedt (Sweden), Michael Mortensen (Denmark) and Carlos Rodriguez (Argentina) elevated her recreation to an elite stage. Greater than a decade later, Wang Xinyu, Wang Xiyu and Zheng Qinwen would all discover success with that very same blueprint.
The headlines on the 2011 French Open centered on Novak Djokovic’s undefeated begin to the 12 months. He was 41-0 when he fell to Roger Federer within the semifinals. On reflection, Li Na’s 6-4, 7-6 (0) victory over defending French Open champion Francesca Schiavone was in all probability extra significant.
On the age of 29, Li was a serious champion.
“At 6-0 within the tiebreak, I used to be considering, `OK, don’t do something silly,’” she advised reporters afterward. “As a result of many occasions I’ve had match level and never received the match. After I was a younger participant, I needed to be a Grand Slam champion, and now I’m.
“Somebody stated the opposite day that I’m getting previous, so this previous girl’s dream has come true.”
Some 65 million individuals again in China watched the ultimate on tv or on-line.
“If a Chinese language participant can win a Grand Slam possibly it proves lots for Chinese language tennis,” Li stated, presciently. “I consider Chinese language tennis will get greater and greater.”
She reached the semifinals of the Australian Open in 2010, her finest effort in a serious, after which misplaced within the 2011 and 2013 finals in Melbourne. In 2014, Li went one higher, defeating Dominika Cibulkova 7-6 (3), 6-0. This time, an estimated 70 million watched at house.
“Yet one more step,” Li stated. “That is my fourth last. I’ve extra expertise. I care about what I ought to do on the court docket, not about what I did up to now.”
Lower than six months later, she had performed her final match, a third-round loss at Wimbledon to Barbora Strycova. A left knee damage that required surgical procedure successfully ended her profession; she introduced her retirement, on the age of 32, in September.
The resume she left behind is dazzling.
Li produced a stellar singles report of 503-188 (.728) and received 9 titles. She rose as excessive because the No.2 rating and made the quarterfinals in any respect 4 majors — the semifinals in three. She was inducted into the Worldwide Tennis Corridor of Fame in 2019. At this time she is a mom of 8-year-old Alisa and 6-year-old Sapajou.
As for the general impact she had on the game in her nation, contemplate this: In 2011, there have been solely two occasions in China. In 2019, that whole was 9, a quantity that was quickly halted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Li surfaced this summer time at Wimbledon, taking part in legends doubles with Agnieszka Radwanska and posing for a photograph with Roger Federer and Lindsey Vonn. It went viral in China, the place Li has 21 million followers on an X-like social media web site referred to as Weibo.
These in her debt haven’t forgotten.
“After Li Na,” Zheng stated in New York, “tennis turned a extra common sport in China. Due to her lots. She additionally put a dream seed in my coronary heart that I wish to turn into like that.”
- Li Na’s legacy past the white strains of the tennis court docket
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