In her autobiography, My Life, Li Na confesses pondering, “If I’d not turned to tennis, where would I be today?”
The greater question is, where would tennis be today without Li Na?
Li and tennis are complicated like any intricate relationship. As a six-year-old kid, her first foray was in her father's sport of badminton, a game she played for two years until switching racquet handles. She took her time with letting tennis into her heart before setting out to make her dad's dream of winning the Chinese Nationals come true, only to have her cherished hero taken away at 14. She broke up with the sport when she was 20 for health and personal reasons, then rekindled that passion after two years at university provided her a collection of perspectives to explore. Injuries like rib fractures and recurring knee pain threatened to pull Li and tennis apart for good, but the team she built around her, anchored by husband Jiang Shan, ensured that bond never broke.
Smart, stubborn and sometimes sarcastic, Li’s vow to serve, rather than return, when arriving at her career crossroads is a major reason why the courageous champion stands in Newport, Rhode Island today as the first Chinese player—and first Asian-born competitor—set to be inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. There are all of the earlier pioneer moments Li achieved for China: the first to win a WTA singles title, the first to reach the Top 20, the Top 10 and ultimately Top 2, and the first to win a major singles title at the 2011 French Open, later backed up with a second Slam at the 2014 Australian Open.
Kate Whitney Lucey/International Tennis Hall of Fame
But more than that, Li’s refusal to conform to tradition and sticking to her authentic self not only won over fans and sponsors worldwide, but forever changed the landscape of her country’s tennis footprint. She demonstrated a difference in opinion doesn’t mean conflict. She showed the strength of following intuition. She proved assembling one’s own trust circle and marrying while still competing professionally can be beneficial. And her personality and charm testify that tattoos don’t have to be taboo.
The result? Nine tournaments in China now feature on the WTA calendar, including the WTA Finals which will debut in Shenzhen at the end of this season. Increased local exposure will inevitably translate to more families with kids picking up tennis racquets. More than 116 million people tuned in to watch her French Open triumph eight years ago. The Li Na effect is not a fad. It is a revolution.
Still, in drumming her own beat, characterized as a rebellious trait earlier in her career, there are countless sides to Li’s identity. A native of Wuhan, she is humble, she is heartfelt, and she is hilarious. At first, Li didn’t believe the news of joining tennis royalty, as she explains to Tennis.com.
“I got an email from the International Tennis Hall of Fame saying I made it and thought, ‘this is a trick. No, it can’t be true.’ Then I checked with my agent Max [Eisenbud]. He said, ‘yes it’s real.’ I talked to my husband and he said, ‘are you sure?’
“Everyone knows after you retire, you have to wait five years before you have a chance. I have to say I am so lucky I can be in the Hall Of Fame. It’s not easy to enter this group because it’s not just about winning a Grand Slam. I did a lot of firsts in China because tennis there is still young. I think in the future, China will get much stronger.”
Eisenbud was first drawn to Li’s abilities when she took on his longtime client Maria Sharapova at the 2006 US Open. When he was finally able to sign her in 2009 after Li’s federation granted permission to venture out on her own, the American focused on helping Li with optimizing her tournament schedule to minimize stress on her knees and aligning his athlete with the right companies. On Saturday, Eisenbud has the honor, and pressure, of introducing Li at her induction ceremony.
“The presenting speech has been quite the project. There are a lot of things that I felt were important to get into it. I spent a lot of time working with other people to help me,” he said. “When I do public speaking, I like to write some notes and go off the top of my head, but with this speech, there’s too many important details that I don’t want to leave out.”
Always quick to poke fun, Li said, “I made a joke for him already. ‘I said don’t be nervous.’ He’s like, ‘yeah, right.’”
Known for her quick wit and sense of humor in post-match interviews, this time around is a stark contrast to Li’s previous experiences in front of a microphone.
“I think for me, it’s very tough to have a long time to wait. It’s not like at a tournament where you don’t have to think about it. It just comes to you,” Li said.
Kate Whitney Lucey/International Tennis Hall of Fame
A lot has changed in Li’s life since her retirement in 2014. She and Eisenbud are working to find a partner to open a tennis academy in her name. Her autobiography has been turned into a movie, set to be released sometime next summer. And she’s the proud mother of daughter Alisa and son Sapajou, a pair of life events that once again offered Li a fresh outlook.
“After I became a mom, it made me closer to my mom. Because now I know how tough it was,” Li said. “It takes a lot mentally. Everything runs on the children’s’ time. It’s not only just about myself.”
Li’s day begins like any typical parent. She gets up between 6:00 and 6:30 before waking her children up for breakfast. After dropping them off at school, she handles any work that needs addressing, then hits the gym for a daily 10km run. By then, it’s time to pick up the kids, whose interests are wide-ranging as one might expect.
“My son likes Formula One and boxing. Can you imagine? He’s only two years old,” Li exclaims. “Every time I turn on the television and one of these are on, he says don’t change the channel. My daughter is different. She likes to sing and dance.”
Whether it’s time passing by, the fulfillment a life with family can bring, seeing herself amongst the game's greats in the Hall of Fame museum, or a combination of all three, Li’s relationship with tennis has finally found its equilibrium. As she crosses the road never traveled before until now, Li’s self-reflection leaves her to declare, “Now it’s like real love. Tennis is a big part of my life.”