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.
It’s hardly surprising that Li Na looks up to Agassi, the noisiest rebel tennis has seen. The 32-year-old Chinese tennis ace has not only defied her country’s traditions, but also its all-powerful tennis federation.
Li Na, who retired from tennis last year due to chronic knee problems, started as a badminton player but was drafted into the national programme for tennis not so much for her skills, but because she was tall and strong. She learned tennis the hard way, with negative reinforcement from coaches who regularly drove her to tears.
The Chinese tennis structure was rigid: she could not reveal a rose tattooed on her chest because tattoos were ‘unfit for women’. And the state received 65 per cent of her professional earnings as a tennis player.
Riddled with doubts, she gave up the game in 2002, stayed off the tour for 25 months and got herself a degree in journalism. Then she came back and broke all the barriers for Asian tennis. "I was pretty rebellious. I think it was a little bit because I never give up. So some people think I’m crazy," she said in a telephone interview.
Li can win
She became the first Asian woman to win a Grand Slam when she claimed the 2011 French Open. And then, having pioneered a tennis revolution in China (more on that later), she went on to win the 2014 Australian Open.
Of her two landmark wins, Li Na believes the Australian Open was the more impressive, "because the second win is always much tougher. After winning the French Open, it took me half a year to stand up again!"
She was also nominated for the 2015 Laureus Sportswoman of the Year Award (the Oscars of sport) for her effort in Melbourne.
"Winning the French Open was important to show that Asian people can do it; that they can win Grand Slam titles in singles," she said."So I think this is good for all Asian tennis players. Maybe one day they will [look at me and] think,‘I can do even better than her’."
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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