She’s still got game
Tennis star Li Na remains an avid proponent of Wuhan Open
It may be almost four years since the last of Li Na’s two Grand Slam wins, but the legendary Chinese player remains as committed as ever to ensuring the ripple effect from those historic triumphs continues to expand.
As the global ambassador for the Wuhan Open, the 35-year-old mother of two has been putting in the hours this week in her native city to promote the sport, and the fruits of her labor are making it all worthwhile.
“Right now, I see a lot of young people picking up rackets,” said Li.
“First, you need to really love what you choose. Sometimes, maybe it is your family who encourage you to play. But children need to love it in their hearts if they’re to really succeed and keep doing it.”
Li obviously loves her promotional duties.
“After all these years fighting, the proudest thing for me is not all of those championships I won,” she said in 2016.
“Making more people love tennis is more important. To let the public embrace the sport and enjoy tennis is an extension of my playing career, and it’s also the purpose of Wuhan Open.”
The 2011 French Open and 2014 Australian Open champion took her mission to the streets of Wuhan this week, teaming up with top Indian doubles player Sania Mirza for an impromptu cooking session on Zhongshan Avenue to showcase local culture.
The pair rustled up Wuhan culinary favorite ‘hot dry noo- dle’, and Mirza was impressed with the results.
“It’s really good,” enthused Mirza after sampling the dish for the first time. “It’s spicy, but it’s good. First time, but definitely not the last. I am going to eat more.”
Mirza, 30, credits former world No 2 Li, who won seven WTA singles titles during her glittering career, for growing the game all over Asia.
“She has been such an inspiration — not just in China, but for Asian women. I have to say, not just in China, a lot of girls have picked up rackets because of her.”
Addressing Li, Mirza added: “You inspired me as well, after I watched what you’ve achieved.”
Around 116 million television viewers in China watched Li overcome Italy’s Francesca Schiavone during the 2011 French Open final to become the first Chinese player to win a Grand Slam singles title, sparking a wave of enthusiasm for the sport here.
“She has made tennis so popular in China,” said Fabrice Chouquet, co-tournament director of the Wuhan Open, in 2016. “It really has taken the game to the next level — the level of basketball and national sports such as badminton and table tennis.”
Former WTA chief executive Stacey Allaster described Li as “without doubt the most important player of this decade”, adding that she “will be an inspiration and create more Li Nas”.
“She transcends China, she is the first Asia Pacific champion,” added Allaster.
Born in Wuhan to a professional badminton-playing father, Li started playing badminton at the age of 6, but switched to tennis two years later on the advice of her coach at a time when tennis was not very popular.
“I remember my parents used to call it ‘fuzzy ball’ because back then not many people in China knew about tennis,” recalled Li.
“I knew I would no longer see articles in print that referred to me merely as a bad-tempered, stubborn girl from Wuhan,” she writes in her autobiography.
“Now I would at least be called a bad-tempered, stubborn girl from Wuhan who was a damn good tennis player.”
But she’s never forgotten her roots. After conducting a tennis clinic for local children last week, Li, known affectionately as “Big Sister Na” to her fans, told reporters: “It’s so good to see so many children enjoying tennis in my hometown.
“Wuhan is building a solid foundation for tennis and everyone is working hard to make this a ‘city of tennis’.
“I want to welcome tennis fans to the Wuhan Open to enjoy top-level sport and a wonderful family atmosphere. It’s one of the most prestigious tournaments on the WTA Tour, a Premier 5, but it’s also going to be a great party for everyone.”
Chinese tennis legend Li Na digs into a bowl of noodles as Indian doubles ace Sania Mirza cheers her on during their impromptu cooking session on Wuhan’s Zhongshan Avenue to showcase local cuisine during this week’s Wuhan Open.