50 Years, 50 Heroes: 2003, Li Na

by: Steve Tignor | December 19, 2018

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The China native helped lead tennis into a new world—her own. (AP)

For our sixth annual Heroes Issue, we’ve selected passages from the last 50 years of Tennis Magazine and TENNIS.com—starting in 1969 and ending in 2018—to highlight 50 worthy heroes. Each passage acknowledges the person as they were then; each subsequent story catches up with the person, or highlights their impact, as they are now. It is best summed up with a quote from the great Arthur Ashe, that was featured on the cover of the November/December issue of this magazine in 2015: “True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost.”

Asia is primed to explode. In 2003, the ITF will spend about $500,000, or about 16 percent of its $3.2-million annual development budget, in Asia—more than any region save Africa—to train coaches, assist tournaments, and support top players. –Douglas Robson / June 2003

These days, Li Na is a 36-year-old mother of two. Gone is the Babolat racquet, the Nike dresses and much of the muscle mass that propelled her to No. 2 in the world before she retired in 2014.

“Family is No. 1 for me,” the fan favorite told CNN this summer.

She’s a wife and mother, that is, who just happens to be one of sport’s great pioneers. When she became the first Asian to win a major singles title, at the 2011 French Open, this native of Wuhan, China, helped lead tennis into a new world—her own. By the time she hung up her racquet, millions of Chinese had picked one up for the first time.

Breaking that new ground wasn’t easy. During her first decade on tour, she reached just one Grand Slam quarterfinal. But after splitting with the Chinese national team in 2008, she steadily ascended. By 2014, she was a two-time major champion, and on the cover of Time. “Age like paper,” Li said with a smile, when she was asked about playing into her 30s. Her message was: It didn’t matter how old you are, or where you come from—you can still conquer a world.

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