For Li Na, Another First in Tennis


When Li Na was a girl, tennis was often an objectionable chore. Training was grueling, her coaches berated her, and sometimes she hated it.

Later, when she dared to stand up against the Chinese government-run tennis program by demanding the right to make the choices about her own career, she faced withering criticism and attacks in state-owned media outlets, while others doubted her playing ability.

On Saturday, Li’s perseverance and pioneering courage will be recognized with the highest honor in her profession: induction into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.

She will be the first Asian-born player enshrined, but one ceremony cannot encapsulate all Li endured to reach the top of the tennis world and make a country pay attention to a sport that was mostly unknown when she started playing it.

“For me, it means everything,” Li said in Manhattan on Thursday. “The tears, the tough times, the pain. Everything is paid back. It was all worth it.”

Tennis has been a dynamic stage for some of the most influential people in sports and society, from Arthur Ashe and Billie Jean King to today’s stars like Venus and Serena Williams. Li Na is a worthy member of that pantheon — a modest woman from Wuhan, China, whose impact in Asia surpasses them all.

When Li, 37, began playing tennis at age 8, most people in her country did not even know what the sport was, she said. But when she won the 2011 French Open to become China’s first Grand Slam singles champion, 116 million people in her country watched the final on television. Even her mother was confused about all the attention.

“She called and asked: ‘Li Na, you just won one tournament. Why is your picture in all the papers?’” Li recalled with a laugh. “I said, ‘Uh, maybe this was a big one.’”

Big does not even begin to describe her enduring impact. In 2011, there were two WTA events in China, including the China Open. In 2019, there are 11. Chinese women have followed Li’s path. China has 10 women in the top 200 in singles and 51 in the top 850. In doubles, there are 13 Chinese women in the top 200.

Grass-roots participation there has soared, too, with an estimated 14 million players driving a $4 billion industry. With about 30 million followers on her Weibo microblog account and millions of dollars in endorsements, Li still has wide influence.

“It is the most momentous induction into the Hall of Fame that we have had probably since Andre Agassi was inducted,” said Todd Martin, the chief executive of the International Tennis Hall of Fame, “and certainly until the Federers, Nadals, Djokovics and the Williams sisters of the world retire and get inducted.”

Agassi was inducted in 2011, and when Li was young, he was her role model with his long hair, earrings and bleached denim shorts. She later demonstrated her own flair with multiple stud earrings and a rose tattoo on her chest, considered rare for a Chinese player at the time. But more important barriers would fall, too.

Li won two Grand Slam events and nine WTA tournaments and reached a career-high ranking of No. 2 on Feb. 17, 2014, after her victory at that year’s Australian Open. She also reached the Australian Open final in 2011 and 2013 and a semifinal of the United States Open in 2013. She enthralled her nation by reaching a semifinal at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, where she now resides.

“Before I got into Grand Slams, maybe people thought Asian players were not suited for tennis,” she said while traveling along the Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive on Thursday morning. “I made people realize that it is reachable.”

In Manhattan to promote the induction ceremony, where she will be joined by Mary Pierce and Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Li spent the morning being spirited from one event to another — an interview at South Street Seaport, a tennis clinic on the Upper East Side, a luncheon.

It was a hectic day, and for much of it, other people were in control, directing her where to go and when. That is unusual for a woman who fought against powerful forces for her right to make decisions about her own career and life.

Through a combination of her success and doggedness, Li was eventually able to choose her own coaches, map out her schedule and keep more of the prize money she earned. She initially had to play for the Chinese national team and hand over 65 percent of her earnings to the federation. But it dropped to 8 percent and finally 0 in a policy called danfei, or fly solo.

Li does not consider success in tennis a solo achievement, though.

“I prefer, ‘Make your own choice about your team,’” she said, and lauded her coaches and trainers, including some from the Chinese federation years ago. (She said some members of the federation were invited to Saturday’s ceremony.)

Li said that over time, tennis went from being something she hated to something she loved and finally enjoyed. Many current players have benefited by her example.

“She let us see and believe that Asian players can have the ability to win and go far in a Grand Slam,” Zheng Saisai, the 47th-ranked player in the world, said in a telephone interview from Kazakhstan, where she was playing in a tournament.

Zheng, 25, said that when she began playing tennis in China as a schoolgirl, taxi drivers and classmates asked if her racket was a guitar. But Li’s early success turned the tide, and by the time she captured the French Open, the tide was an unstoppable wave.

“My parents always said, ‘Look at Li Na,’” Zheng said. “After she won, so many kids walked on the tennis court. She let them have the tennis dream, and that includes me.”

Since her retirement in 2014, Li and her husband, Jiang Shan, have started a family. They have a 4-year-old girl and a 2-year-old boy. Li said she runs 10 kilometers every day in roughly 65 minutes, the result of a wisecrack from her daughter about being out of shape, which Li took as a challenge.

She also earned an M.B.A. from the Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business in Beijing.

“In our country, so many people think that professional athletes, after they retire, the only thing they can do is coach,” she said. “So I want to challenge myself. At least I’m trying.”

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