Leg­ends can’t be copied

Chi­nese icon Li urges tal­ented up-and-com­ers to ‘just be your­self’

China Daily (Latin America Weekly) - - Holiday - By SHI FUTIAN in Wuhan shi­fu­tian@chi­nadaily.com.cn

Aryna Sa­balenka’s tri­umph over Anett Kon­taveit in Satur­day’s fi­nal duel at the Pre­mier 5 Wuhan Open not with­stand­ing, the ab­sence of Chi­nese play­ers re­minded fans that the na­tion still awaits a wor­thy suc­ces­sor to two-time Grand Slam cham­pion Li Na.

Four years ago at the same tour­na­ment, Wuhan na­tive Li bid ten­nis a mem­o­rable farewell, re­ceiv­ing flow­ers from her friend Caro­line Woz­ni­acki and deaf­en­ing cheers from a huge crowd at the Op­tics Val­ley In­ter­na­tional Ten­nis Cen­ter in the cap­i­tal of Hubei prov­ince.

No one wanted her to leave, but she knew the time had come. And while some fans still fan­ta­size about a come­back, Li wants no part of it.

“Hon­estly, I don’t want peo­ple to re­mem­ber me,” Asia’s first Grand Slam sin­gles cham­pion said. “That would mean that Chi­nese ten­nis hasn’t grow up or im­proved.

“I’ve been re­tired for four years, but I al­ways have to an­swer the same ques­tion: ‘Where’s the next Li Na?’ I have to say that ev­ery­one’s dif­fer­ent. No way to copy. You have to be your­self.”

Li never ac­tu­ally left ten­nis. As global am­bas­sador for the Wuhan Open, she works tire­lessly to pro­mote ten­nis in China and make the sport a call­ing card for her home­town.

“Li Na’s global in­flu­ence was def­i­nitely a de­ter­min­ing fac­tor in get­ting a WTA tour­na­ment here in Wuhan,” said Fabrice Chou­quet, tour­na­ment co-di­rec­tor. “That’s the best way to de­velop ten­nis in China.”

Although Li is adamant about “never think­ing of my­self as a hero,” her achieve­ments are an on­go­ing in­spi­ra­tion for a new gen­er­a­tion of Chi­nese stars, in­clud­ing Wang Qiang, who made it to the semi­fi­nals at this year’s tour­na­ment.

“Li Na is my role model and she’s why I play. If I could play like Li Na, I’ll feel my life would be per­fect,” said Wang, the world No 34.

The 26-year-old had a break­through sec­ond half of the sea­son, beat­ing mul­ti­ple Grand Slam win­ner Venus Wil­liams at the French Open in June and win­ning the Jiangxi Open in July. She also struck gold in sin­gles at the Asian Games in Au­gust be­fore mak­ing it to the third round at the US Open two weeks later.

Wang claimed her sec­ond ti­tle at the Guangzhou Open and then con­tin­ued her magic in Wuhan, where she de­feated Maria Sakkari, Karolina Pliskova, Daria Gavrilova and Mon­ica Puig to ad­vance to Fri­day’s semi­fi­nal — the deep­est run a Chi­nese player has ever man­aged at the tour­na­ment.

Peter McNa­mara, Wang’s Aus­tralian coach, said much of the credit for her im­prove­ment should go to Li.

“We can all look up to Li Na,” said McNa­mara, a three-time Grand Slam dou­bles cham­pion. “She’s the first per­son that Chi­nese play­ers should look up to. She’s been in­stru­men­tal in bring­ing the younger play­ers up, be­cause she’s an icon.”

Dur­ing an ex­clu­sive in­ter­view with China Daily, McNa­mara also men­tioned 17-year-old Wang Xiyu as an ex­am­ple of Li’s in­flu­ence.

When she re­ceived a qual­i­fi­ca­tion round wild card for the Wuhan Open, many did not be­lieve Wang Xiyu could make into the main draw, but she proved her worth by get­ting two straight wins in the qual­i­fy­ing rounds and de­feat­ing world No 72 Bernarda Pera in the open­ing round.

Although she lost to world No 13 Daria Kasatk­ina in the sec­ond round, Wang showed her po­ten­tial to the world, es­pe­cially given that the teenager won this year’s US Open girls’ sin­gles ti­tle and claimed the Wim­ble­don girls’ dou­bles crown with part­ner Wang Xinyu.

“I love Li Na’s per­son­al­ity of just be­ing her­self,” said the tal­ented teen, who loved to watch Li’s matches on­line when she’s a lit­tle girl. “I’m in­spired by her. I will just keep be­ing my­self, keep chas­ing my goal and be more de­ter­mined.”

As to who “the next Li” might be, it’s still any­one’s guess.

Maybe it’s not that com­pli­cated.

“Young play­ers need only do one thing: Try their best. Ev­ery­one has their own dreams, so don’t give up,” Li said.

XIN­HUA

Aryna Sa­balenka of Be­larus cel­e­brates with her coach after win­ning the WTA Dongfeng Mo­tor Wuhan Open on Satur­day in Wuhan, Hubei prov­ince. Sa­balenka de­feated Es­to­nia's Anett Kon­taveit 6-3, 6-3 to claim her sec­ond ti­tle of the sea­son.

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