The bombing from the baseline was not the first thing that Li Na noticed about Andre Agassi, her role model. "When I was young, they didn’t show much tennis on TV in China. One day I turned on the television and saw Agassi. He had long hair, an earring, and [wore] jeans. That was pretty special for me. I thought, ‘Tennis players are so cool’," Li Na said during a fan interaction this year.
There’s a good chance of that happening. Tennis statistics in China are startling. The country now has 30,000 courts, an estimated 14 million tennis players and a market worth $4 billion. It hosts five women’s tour events, including one in Li Na’s hometown Wuhan.
Li Na’s story is one of success in every way, considering that she was not naturally inclined to tennis. “Everyone is different. When I started to play tennis, I was not a natural, so I took a long time to stop doubting myself. When I won, I knew I had to do it well,” she said.“You face a tough time, of course. You cannot cry or give up.”
Her sense of humour helped Li Na get through her tennis travails – and so did her mother, who, in spite of being a staunch supporter, had no idea why she was so famous. “When I won the French Open, my mom called the next day and said, ‘Hey, Li Na, what happened? Why is your picture on the front pages of so many newspapers?’
Her mother was Li Na’s rock and so was Jiang Shan, her husband and one-time coach. It was with Shan’s support that Li broke away from the Chinese federation in 2008, a move that was called ‘Flying Solo’.
After detaching herself from the federation, she would have to pay for the expenses of her coaching staff, but would also give only eight per cent of her winnings to the tennis association. Li said she misses the sport, particularly “the fight on the court”, but is looking forward to the next chapter.
She is expecting a baby girl and is hoping to start her own tennis academy. “I already had the idea (for coaching), so after I retired, I spoke to my agent. I really wish I could have an academy to help more young children.”
A Li Na tennis academy in China could go a long way in cementing her legacy. But how would she want to be remembered? “Crazy. Tough. Brave,” she says. And cool, perhaps.
From HT Brunch, May 3
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