She’s still got game

Ten­nis star Li Na re­mains an avid pro­po­nent of Wuhan Open

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - FRONT PAGE - By CHINA DAILY in Wuhan, Hubei prov­ince Con­tact the writer at shi­fu­tian@chi­nadaily.com.cn

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.”

XIAO YIJIU / XIN­HUA

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.

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