The Women’s Tennis Association sees the Chinese market as crucial. How to judge this? Look no further than the number of WTA events hosted there. A decade ago it was just two, but this year 10 events were arranged in China.
The growing popularity of tennis is largely thanks to Li Na, the Wuhan-born player who went on to become Asia’s first female Grand Slam winner. To capitalise on her star power the WTA has even added a Wuhan Open to the circuit. It began last Friday but organisers can’t have anticipated quite how newsworthy it was going to be. In a tearful announcement Li told media that she would not be playing at the tournament in Wuhan, but also that she is giving up professional tennis, aged 32, because of a knee injury.
She did her best to put a brave face on the decision. “I feel this is the best time for me to retire. I don’t feel sorry or have any regrets about retiring,” she told a packed news conference on Sunday at the National Tennis Centre in Beijing. “When I was making this decision I asked myself, ‘Will I regret it?’ My heart told me I wouldn’t, because I’ve done my best.”
Li won the French Open in 2011. She won her second major in January, claiming the Australian Open. But plagued by the knee injury, Li has only entered seven more tournaments and hasn’t played at all since a third-round defeat at Wimbledon. She withdrew from three tournaments in August, including the US Open.
“After the surgery in July, I tried very hard to recover, hoping I can make it to participate in tennis matches in China especially the Wuhan Open which is the first ever big tennis match in my hometown,” Li said.
“However, this is my fourth big surgery, and with my age and physical state, it is hard for me… I think this is about the right time to say goodbye to everyone, because my body doesn’t allow me to participate in high-level tennis matches.”
After Li’s announcement, some of her fellow players expressed their sadness at the news. “It is obviously a very big loss for tennis in general all around the world, and specially here in China where Li Na has been so influential for so many years,” said Maria Sharapova, the Russian player, adding that it was “super sad” for Li not to be able to compete in the tournament in her hometown.
News about Li’s retirement also became one of the most discussed topics on weibo, with netizens thanking the athlete for representing her country and wishing her well. “Thank you Li Na. We wish you all the best. You will always be the pride of the nation,” one wrote.
“Li Na is retiring and everyone is so sad. That’s because not only did she make tennis so fun to watch, her unyielding attitude and confidence fills everyone with hope and positive energy,” said another.
Li was an unorthodox sports star. In fact, some other netizens were annoyed that she left the national team in 2002 after she was barred by sports officials from courting the man who became her husband and coach, Jiang Shan.
Li later rejoined the Chinese training team after tying the knot with Jiang but left again in 2009 and hired her own team of coaches and trainers.
She also insisted on recruiting her own agent – something then unheard of for sports stars who had come up through the state ranks – and she profited handsomely from a series of endorsements and sponsorships.
“Players like Li Na that don’t play for the country but for themselves should have retired a long time ago. If it wasn’t for her country how could she have her success today? She’s a disgrace to China!” one netizen fumed.
Li’s reputation for individualism may also explain why state-run newspapers like the China Daily and the Global Times didn’t dwell much on her contribution to the tennis world. Instead the China Daily ran a story about younger Chinese players who could “take over from Li”, while the Global Times took the line that Olympic swimming star Sun Yang could “fill Li’s void” in terms of celebrity.
But Li says she will not completely give up on tennis. “What I really want to do now is try to set up a tennis school of my own and do basic things to help build up the base for Chinese tennis,” she says.
Li also says her academy will reflect Western coaching methods, which she preferred to the training techniques of her more critical Chinese instructors.
She also expressed a desire for the venture to have a philanthropic tilt, with a focus on underprivileged children.
During the press conference, Li was back to her straight-talking best, as she struggled to hide her disdain for Chinese male tennis players.
“Right now they think, ‘Oh my ranking is around 300, that’s perfect,’” she suggested. “But it’s not perfect. I mean, 300 is nothing in the whole world. So they need to have high goals. The women are doing well but I hope one day the men can grow up as well. They are lazy.”
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