The headlines about Li Na’s latest knee injury have centred on the fact that she will miss the US Open later this month, but the real story is about ensuring her legacy.
While announcing on her Facebook page that she will miss the tournaments in Montreal and Cincinnati, as well as the Grand Slam event in New York, Li also wrote that she is looking forward to getting back on the court in Wuhan and Beijing.
Wuhan, of course, is the brand-new WTA Premier event in her hometown in late September, and, as the face of this new tournament, Li knows she has to do whatever it takes to play there. That, it seems, has become more important to her than winning another Grand Slam or earning the No. 1 ranking – her two stated goals following that Australian Open win.
Rankings are done on a 12-month rolling basis, so having had the perfect start to 2014 by winning in Melbourne, Li had the rest of the year to take a shot at the No. 1 spot, held, as usual, by Serena Williams. But by the time Li lost in the first round at the French Open and suffered another early defeat at Wimbledon, she would have known that, whatever happens in the fall, the 12 months since that January win in Australia would not be enough to topple Williams.
Li turns 33 in February, and while the sports marketers would have us believe that everything is possible, there is nothing to suggest that Li is still destined to be the world’s top-ranked player before she retires. Despite winning in Melbourne, she has faced just two top-10 players this year – and lost to both.
But even if Li peaks at a career high of No. 2, she has arguably been the most important player of this decade, with her two Grand Slam titles giving belief to the world’s most populous nation – and to the Asian continent as a whole – that tennis is not just for the West.
Which returns us to her legacy.
In launching an event that has drawn commitment from the likes of Williams and Maria Sharapova, Li Na knows that she can ensure tennis is truly established in her homeland. Further down the line, both China and the WTA need to find an on-court successor to Li, but Li will remain the face of tennis in China long after she has finished playing.