BEIJING – On the day China’s first tennis superstar announced her retirement, fans praised Li Na as a pioneer both in the Western-dominated sport in which she excelled and in China’s tightly controlled system for training and managing athletes.
Few players from Asia had excelled at the tennis majors before Li’s Grand Slam breakthrough at Roland Garros in 2011, when she won the French Open. She also won the Australian Open in January, after losing two previous finals at Melbourne Park. It has led to a tennis resurgence in the region.
“She’s a by-word for tennis in China and even Asia,” said 50-year-old Meng Huchun, who works at a TV station in the western Xinjiang region and himself started playing at age 13.
“She inspired a whole generation. She helped promote tennis in China in a big way. The next generation is growing stronger, and one day, we will have more Li Nas.”
Li, now 32, was one of the first top Chinese athletes to break from the country’s rigorous sports system, which takes in hundreds of promising athletes at childhood and decides much of their personal and professional lives.
She joined the national team at age 15, dropped out to study journalism and then rejoined. She and three other Chinese women tennis players left the system in 2008 to build independent careers, which let them hire their own coaching staffs and keep more of their winnings.
Longtime sports commentator Sun Qun said that independent streak helped Li become “a true professional athlete.”
“Every athlete has his or her own sports life, which is only 10-some years,” Sun said. “It is a miracle that Li Na should play into her 30s, and true fans of Li Na should support her decision and feel relief.”
During her long career, Li joined the pantheon of Chinese athletic greats who built international careers and won lucrative sponsorship deals.
Nike sponsored her at age 15 when she studied tennis at the John Newcombe Academy in Texas. Her native city of Wuhan has erected a statue of her with her fist raised in victory.
On Friday, Nike posted a tribute on its Weibo social media account: “Only the bird willing to stick out deserves to fly further. Our salute to the leading bird of the past 15 years.”
Li wrote in an online post Friday that she was retiring because of repeated problems with her knee.
“My body is begging me to stop the pounding,” she wrote.
Rumors had been mounting about a pending retirement since Li withdrew ahead of the U.S. Open last month. In recent days, speculation reached fever pitch on Chinese social media networks, and the state media caught on. Li was due to compete at Wuhan, a new event the WTA has brought to her hometown, and many expected her to release the news there. But she published an open letter on Friday, and planned to hold a news conference on Sunday, at Beijing instead of Wuhan.
In the letter, Li said “winning a Grand Slam title this year and achieving a ranking of World No.2 is the way I would like to leave competitive tennis.”
“As hard as it’s been to come to this decision, I am at peace with it. I have no regrets,” she said. I’ve succeeded on the global stage in a sport that a few years ago was in its infancy in China.
“In 2008, there were two professional women’s tennis tournaments in China. Today, there are 10, one of them in Wuhan, my hometown. That to me is extraordinary! Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova and Venus Williams — with 30 Grand Slam singles titles among them — are coming to my hometown to play tennis for the fans of China!”
Li plans to continue her involvement in tennis, through her own academy, and is keen to have a family.
“On a personal side, I look forward to starting a new chapter of my life, hopefully having a family and reconnecting with those I did not have the luxury of spending a lot of time with while playing,” she said. “Tennis is an individual sport and as players, our job is to spend a lot of time focusing on ourselves. But no player can ever become a champion alone and nobody knows this better than me — I must thank those that have stuck with me through the highs and the lows and have helped me become the person that I am today.”
A fan from Shanghai, who would only identify himself by his family name of Wang, said he was still hopeful for more championships to come.
“It’s not necessarily a full stop,” Wang said. “Tennis players like (Martina) Hingis first retired and then came back and started again.”