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LI GOES BACK INTO BATTLE WITH SERENA

2015-4-15


Having shared a keen rivalry with Serena Williams during her career, the retired Li Na will take on the American once more as they battle it out for the World Sportswomen of the year at the Laureus awards next month.

"I thought when I was retired, I don't have to fight against her anymore," says Li, whose nomination is even more significant since the Laureus awards, known as the Oscars of sports, will be held in Shanghai, China, this year.

"But I have to say, she [Serena] is an amazing player. Yeah, really happy she can be there [nominated], as well. I think I play against her many times and I only beat her once. I wish the number could be much higher," says Li of her 1-11 win-loss record against the reigning world number one. "Wow. I think she has big chance to be the best one [in history]."

Li, who retired in September last year, may not have had the Grand Slam count equal to Serena's. But she has left a long-lasting legacy for Chinese and Asian players to look up to. She became the first Asian woman to win a singles Grand Slam when she claimed the 2011 French Open and went on to capture her second major at the 2014 Australian Open.

"I think with my title I proved that Asian people can also win Grand Slam titles in singles," she says. "It gives me a lot of confidence, maybe one day they will think about it and think I can do even better than her."

Even though her first title blazed a trail, the 33-year-old is more proud of the success at the Australian Open, which she says is her "favorite Grand Slam tournament."

"For me personally, I prefer the Australian Open because the second one is always much, much tougher," she says. "After I win the French [Open], I used half a year to stand up again. I had the experience of winning, but I had to plan for the second one, and I was very happy finally I can make it."

The seeds of Li's success story were laid in one of the toughest regimented sports programs, as China recruited youngsters across disciplines so that the country was at its athletic best at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Li has earlier spoken about the negative reinforcement her coaches used and needed a break from tennis for 25 months, from 2002 to 2004, to overcome doubts until she finally became comfortable in her skin as a professional.

"For me, when I start to play tennis, it did not come naturally," says one of the cleanest hitters the women's game has seen. "When I won, I got more experience. I know this is my job and I have to do it well and I changed my mind. I think everyone is different, you face a tough time, of course you're feeling uncomfortable. But you have to do it; you cannot cry or give up.

"I thought I was pretty rebellious, when I make the goal, I never give up. So some people think I'm crazy."

Now listed as one of the most influential and marketable women athletes in the world, Li's triumph on the big stage scripted a tennis revolution in China. Statistics state that the country has about 15 million tennis players now, some 30,000 tennis courts and hosts five WTA tournaments, including one in Li's hometown Wuhan. She became the smiling, confident face of the country, and continent, with a massive tennis potential.

"She opened a pretty big door in China and in Asia," tennis legend Martina Navratilova says of Li.

"There already are a lot more Chinese players out there and they will be making their mark, and with all of the academies and places that are starting out around China, the girls that she's inspiring, and boys, too, I hope.

"Once she won the French Open, the pressure that was on her as the first Asian player, male or female, to get that far was just really hard to imagine. Maybe only Andy Murray can relate to that with what he went through at Wimbledon. That kind of intangible is really hard to measure. So my hat is off to Li Na for winning the first Grand Slam and then to win again at the Australian Open a year ago, an amazing achievement."

A chronic knee injury forced her out of the game last year, and though she is enjoying her time off and is expecting her first child with husband Jiang Shan, she would like to stay connected with the game and possibly start her own academy in China.

"Right now, it's less pressure, but I'm still missing a lot the fight on the court. Tennis was with me already over 20 years. I cannot separate with it. I don't miss travelling; now at least I have more time with my friends and with my family.

"I really wish I can have a Li Na tennis academy to help more young children. I would like to make very good space for them when they come to the court, they are like, oh, finally, we can play, like more space for them to play, just for fun. Of course, not everyone can be professional athlete."

Now enjoying the sport more as a spectator, Li says the depth in women's tennis means there are more players pushing for the top spot. But there's one particular player she's, not so secretly, rooting for. "I like Petra Kvitova," says Li. "I like the style she plays. I really wish she could win all of them."

Deepti Patwardhan is a freelance sports writer based in India.



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