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Friday, Sep 19, 2014

Sports

Tennis: Li Na, China's tennis revolutionary

AFP | Friday, Sep 19, 2014

Li Na of China poses with the trophy following her victory over Dominika Cibulkova of Slovakia at the 2014 Australian Open on Jan 26. China's two-time Grand Slam-winner Li Na announced her retirement on Sept 19, saying injuries had forced her to end her career.

BEIJING - Li Na single-handedly sparked a tennis revolution in Asia and became one of the world's most successful athletes thanks to her fierce determination to overcome the odds.

The straight-talking, wise-cracking Li earned an army of fans when she became the first Asian national to win a Grand Slam singles title at the French Open in 2011.

When she added a second Slam title at the Australian Open in January, her legacy was complete and the touchpaper had been lit for tennis to take off across the continent.

Li, 32, said she would forever be proud of her influence in popularising tennis in China, and beyond, as she announced her retirement Friday after a series of debilitating knee injuries.

"Having the unique opportunity to effectively bring more attention to the sport of tennis in China and all over Asia is something I will cherish forever," Li said in a Facebook post Friday.

"But in sport, just like in life, all great things must come to an end." Li's success has been infectious. Compatriot Peng Shuai reached the semi-finals of the recent US Open and Japan's Kei Nishikori was the men's runner-up, something that would have been beyond the dreams of Asian fans only a few years ago.

Such is China's new appetite for tennis that next week, Li's home city of Wuhan hosts a new, premier-level tournament, one of six WTA Tour-level events on Chinese soil this year including last week's inaugural Hong Kong Open.

"Just as I didn't think I could ever be a Grand Slam champion, never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that some of the best female athletes in the world could play tennis in Wuhan, in my backyard," said Li in her statement.

Over the course of Li's rise, Women's Tennis Association (WTA) chief Stacey Allaster put her front and centre of a concerted push into Asia.

Li was the cover girl for last year's Time magazine issue which listed her among the world's 100 most influential people.

After a fallow period following the 2011 French Open victory, distracted by sponsors and media commitments, she took the bold move of sacking her husband Jiang Shan as coach and teaming up with Carlos Rodriguez.

She went on to end 2013 at world number three and then in January won the Australian Open after losing two finals there in 2011 and 2013.

"I finally got here," she told the crowd.

Much has been made of her brave and career-defining decision to opt out of China's rigid state sports system and go it alone, hiring her own coaches and controlling her earnings.

Often seen as a maverick, she also defied Chinese convention by getting a tattoo - a red rose, on her chest.

The Chinese system initially groomed Li for badminton, following in the footsteps of her father. But she was switched to tennis, against her wishes, at the age of nine.

"At the time, tennis was not so popular in China. After my family saw the court, they said, 'okay, we'll change'. I was like, 'why didn't you ask me?'" she recalled later.

Li's father passed away when she was 14, and she gave up tennis in her early twenties to study journalism, frustrated by her inability to reach the main draw of Grand Slams.

But a plea to play in a national competition reignited her passion, and she became the spearhead of a new generation of Chinese women's players who broke new ground.

In 2004, she became the first Chinese woman to win a WTA title, in Guangzhou, and then in 2006 the first to reach a Grand Slam quarter-final, at Wimbledon.

After leaving China's state system in 2008, her breakthrough season was 2011, when she won in Sydney before losing the Australia Open final tearfully to Kim Clijsters.

However, she would have just four months to wait for a historic Grand Slam title, edging gritty Italian Francesca Schiavone to lift the French Open.

Li goes out having earlier this year been number two in the world, her highest career ranking, and as an inspiration to millions of Asians.

"I've seen change happening in front of my eyes, young girls picking up tennis racquets, setting goals, following their hearts and believing in themselves," she said on Facebook.

"I hope that I've had the opportunity to inspire young women all over China to believe in themselves, to set their goals high and pursue them with vengeance and self-belief."

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