Li Na: An inspirational career comes to an end

Modified 19 Sep 2014
Li Na at the 2014 Australian Open
Li Na at the 2014 Australian Open

And just like that, Li Na the tennis player, has walked out of our lives.

Sure, we had not seen her in action for a few months. Yes, her continuing injuries were a cause of concern. And she had definitely been left rudderless after the sudden departure of her coach. In fact, in hindsight, it could be said that it was all obviously building up to today’s announcement of her retirement.

Yet, that doesn’t make her decision any easier to take. It just feels like a rotten truth everyone suspected but no one spoke about, finally being forced out into the open. The girl with the rose tattoo has decided to move on.

You see, Li was a special kind of tennis champion, in more ways than one. She was the kind of player you would root for, because you personally ‘liked’ her. She was never a Roger Federer or a Serena Williams. These are players who, quite often, seem to be operating at a different plane. We might be in awe of their skills and greatly admire their champion qualities, but we would not, in our right minds, try to imitate them.

Li, on the other hand, was one of us. She had managed to rise up against the odds, fighting against the obvious strains of self-doubt, to become a true iconoclastic hero(ine). She was like the tomboy-next-door who used to play pranks on you while you were growing up together. She was like your childhood friend, whose struggles you understood, and whose victories today, therefore, seemed more personal to you. She was always more inspirational than awe-inspiring.

So as Li Na rides into the tennis sunset, how will she be best remembered?

Li Na, the tennis champion

Above all, Li was an exceptional tennis player. Her ball-striking ability was feared on tour. She remained one of the very few players who could give as good she got with Serena Williams at the height of her powers. Her double-handed backhand was one of the smoothest and most effective strokes around.

All these weapons, combined with her agility on court, led her to two Grand Slam titles – the 2011 French Open, and this year’s crown at her favourite Australian Open. She was, thus, able to achieve that most difficult of tasks – translate obvious talent into results.

My personal favourite memory of Li as a tennis player is the image of her pummelling a hungry Maria Sharapova (who had lost the least number of games on her way to that match in the tournament’s history) in the semifinals of the 2013 Australian Open. It was impeccable, aggressive baseline tennis all the way through, leaving the Russian flat-footed time and again.

Li Na, the trailblazer

What made Li’s triumphs unique, of course, was the place where she came from. In a country, nay, continent, that did not have a tradition of producing heroes in the sport, Li’s success proved to be truly groundbreaking.

Her victory over Francesca Schiavone in the final of the 2011 Roland Garros Championships was watched live by over 100 million viewers in China, reportedly the largest TV audience for a single sports event in the country. Today, there are 10 WTA events played every year in China, including a mandatory tournament in Beijing, and one in her hometown of Wuhan. There are six Chinese women ranked within or very near the top 100 in the sport.

It could well be argued that Li’s success has inspired compatriots like Shuai Peng, who made her first Grand Slam semifinal at Flushing Meadows last month.

What makes Li’s story even more incredible is that her triumphs came largely despite the system in her home country, rather than because of it. It is hard to ignore some videos from Li’s early playing days, like the one below.

In the circumstances, Li’s enduring legacy may well be her pivotal role in opening new global markets for the sport of tennis.

Li Na, the vulnerable hero

Long after Li had announced her tennis skills to the world, she continued to have her share of sceptics who refused to believe she was made of Grand Slam material. She did not have the self-belief, they said. She couldn’t handle pressure well, she had a temper, she was tentative in key moments, and so on.

Multiple Major titles and a regular presence in the top 5 later, these questions were answered, but never completely banished. The mental challenges remained a part of her emotional make-up throughout her career. In fact, Li admitted that Carlos Rodriguez’ greatest achievement as her coach was being able to instill the required levels of self-belief and focus in her.

So it may be quite likely that his sudden departure from the coaching role earlier this year left Li without the moorings she needed to come back from her injuries again.

Even in the very typical letter penned by Li to announce her retirement today, she closed with a call to inspire, saying, “If I could do it, so could you”. Hidden within the inspirational message of the statement may lie a continuing sense of wonder at what she, a normal country girl from China, had actually achieved in her career.

Li Na, the outspoken rebel

Whatever Li’s vulnerabilities, they never came in the way of her often witty, always outspoken comments. These could be controversial comments lashed out in anger at the tennis structure in China, or more humorous ones at the role that money and family played in her life. She never held back, and it helped that she could laugh at herself.

It also helped that she had a great sense of timing. Her winner’s acceptance speech at the 2014 Australian Open has now attained classic status. Watch her poke fun at her husband, get the crowd in splits, wait for the laughter to subside, before delivering the final punchline at the exact right moment.

Even in her retirement, the timing with her letter of announcement, and the actual content of the letter, was spot on. The letter hits all the right notes, acknowledges all the relevant parties, and closes with an attempt at inspiration.

“Whether you want to be a tennis player, a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher or a business leader, I urge you to believe in yourself and follow your dream. If I could do it, you can too! Be the bird that sticks out. With hard work, your dreams will come true”

Pretty standard motivational content, one might say. But when it comes from Li, you know it has to be genuine, and you believe.

Because Li Na was more than just the bird that stuck out. She spread her wings and flew.

Published 19 Sep 2014
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