“Can you tell the Chinese [fans]: Don’t teach me how to play tennis?”
-- Li Na, to chair umpire Alison Lange, as the Australian Open final of 2011 was slipping out of her grasp.
Li Na has retired from tennis with chronic knee injuries. There is no evidence that the injuries were in any way related to the fact that, for so many years, Li carried the weight of the entire Chinese nation on her shoulders.
China is a big nation. Li was just 5-foot-7, but her shoulders were surprisingly strong.
Li’s career almost perfectly parallels the history of her homeland over the past decade-plus; they emerged and sought success and credibility at the same time on similar global stages. It was quite a reversal for Li, given that early in her career she had been tempted to quit the game in disgust over the suffocating hold the Chinese sports establishment had on her.
Li even withdrew from the tour for an extended period, just as she was becoming a player of note, in order to earn a bachelor’s degree in journalism at the Huazhong University of Science and Technology. (That accounts for the fact that her career as a Grand Slam competitor spans just nine years -- far fewer than that of most other elite players.)
That costly hiatus has been interpreted as part of a long-running poker game Li played with the Chinese “national team” administrators as she sought to wrest her autonomy. No autonomy, no potential Grand Slam champion for China, she appeared to be telling them. It was a high-stakes game, and Li won.
As a result of Li’s pushback, all Chinese players following in her footsteps benefited -- and will continue to benefit. It was a victory that might not have been possible had she not been a player so gifted that despite all the hardships she faced -- from the language barrier to those troublesome knees to her husband Jiang Shan’s snoring -- she would become a two-time Grand Slam champion.
Li’s victory at the 2011 French Open was undeniably her single greatest performance. Gliding across the clay at Roland Garros, firing those crisp down-the-line backhands and maintaining her concentration (not always an easy task for Li), she played aggressive, confident tennis to beat a succession of four top-10 players, all of whom had won -- or would win -- major titles.
That win represented exoneration after her failure just months earlier at the Australian Open. In Melbourne, she’d won the first set from “Aussie Kim” Clijsters. But she lost her composure as the second set slipped away, and a large group of Chinese, desperate to see her win, began showering her with advice. (Hence her request to Lang.) If they worried that Li would never have a comparable chance, they were mistaken. All she needed was a little breathing room. A little trust.
It’s fitting that the Australian Open, which likes to bill itself as the Grand Slam of Asia-Pacific, was the major where Li produced her greatest success to offset some discouraging failures. After that first final in 2011, she made it back to the championship match in 2013. On that occasion, she lost to defending champ Victoria Azarenka in a bizarre match during which she rolled her ankle twice, bumped her head on the court following a serious spill (it required a medical timeout) and had to take a nine-minute respite to watch the Australia Day fireworks display -- plenty of time to wonder why, once again, the final was getting away from her.
But Li was undeterred. This February, she finally won the tournament that is closest thing she has to a home major. It was a career-capping win, and perhaps the second time in her career when she was entitled to feel truly free.