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Li Na: Slamming Through the Boundaries of History



Unless you’re talking about ping pong, most of China’s population has traditionally taken little interest in tennis.  And until recently, Asian athletes haven’t been known for their expertise in the full court form of the sport, with rare exceptions like Asian-American Michael Chang.  Though they’ve had some success in doubles events, Asian women remain a small minority in the upper levels of international tennis tournaments.  China’s Li Na hasn’t let any of this daunting history get in the way of her steady rise to the forefront of women’s singles competition.  This year’s showing at the Australian Open marked Li as the first singles player from Asia, man or woman, ever to compete in a Grand Slam event final match.  To secure that spot, she beat the number-one ranked woman in the world, Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark. Although Belgium’s Kim Clijsters ultimately defeated Li for the championship title, just making it to that level was a huge achievement for China and Asian athletes in general. Only a few months later, Li realized her Grand Slam dream and made history again, when she won the French Open over Italy's Francesca Schiavone on June 4, 2011.

Li is no stranger to history-making moments, though; just last year she and teammate Zheng Jie became the first two Chinese players to reach a Grand Slam semifinal, again at the Australian Open.  Li did it by beating legendary American powerhouse Venus Williams in the quarterfinals.  It then took Williams’ equally legendary sister Serena two tiebreak sets to overcome Li in the semifinals.  This elevated Li’s ranking to place her among the top ten, another first for her country.  The only player from Asia of either gender to have climbed higher in the world rankings than Li’s current number seven is Japan’s Kimiko Date-Krumm, who reached number four in 1995.  Li was also the first Chinese player to make it to a Grand Slam quarterfinal, which she did at Wimbledon in 2006.  That same year, she broke into the top 30 rankings, and into the top 20 in 2007, both firsts in Chinese tennis.  Before that, Li won a first-ever prestigious Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) title for China, defeating Martina Sucha in the 2004 Guangzhou Women’s International Open.

In her home country, Li Na has a reputation as something of a rebel, having sparred on occasion with both the media and the Chinese tennis federation.  She has been outspoken in her criticism of Chinese tennis fans, who are new to the etiquette of the sport and often call out during tense moments in matches, something which she says factored into her 2011 Australian Open loss.  This colorful lady sports a rose tattoo on her upper chest, multiple ear piercings, and has on occasion flaunted red hair.  All of this comes as less of a surprise when one learns that her childhood idol was the flamboyant tennis star Andre Agassi.  Internationally, she has made a largely positive impression as a jovial and approachable off-court personality, who often jokes with reporters and shows unabashed elation when she wins. 

Li is a native of Wuhan, in the Hubei province.  She started out at age six in badminton, which has traditionally been a more popular sport in China.  After a couple of years, her coaches noticed that her shoulder-driven arm movements were more like those of a tennis player.  So they switched her training program, and Li turned pro in 1999.  Now 28 years old, she has had a long, injury-hampered road to the top.  Frustrated by previously low rankings that prevented her from entering major tournaments, she even took a couple of years off from tennis to pursue university classes in media studies.  But in 2004, her old national team re-recruited her with an eye toward the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and she has remained active and improving ever since.  She made it as far as the singles semifinals in those Olympics before being beaten out of medal contention.  Li has also competed in doubles, even partnering with some of her former singles opponents, and has won two WTA doubles championships.  After years of lobbying the Chinese tennis federation, in 2008 she and a few other high-ranked athletes officially received unusual permission to leave China’s state-run sports program and manage their own careers. Li first hired Swedish coach Thomas Hogstedt, but he was soon to be replaced by her husband since 2006, Jiang Shan, who himself had been a Davis Cup player and remains her coach today,
followed in April 2011 by new coach Michael Mortensen.  Though the Chinese government still gets a small percentage of her monetary winnings, Li has also been known to donate some of her prize money to charity.

Beyond all of her individual statistics and history-making achievements, Li’s rise to fame holds a much greater significance for her country and all of Asia.  She is now being compared to NBA star Yao Ming, so great is her impact on a sport that is only recently being embraced in the Far East.  China’s government began to expand its tennis program after their women’s team won a doubles gold medal in the 2004 Olympics, and is hoping that Li’s success will help bring more major tournaments to Asia.  The Chinese media devoted extensive coverage to her Australian Open performances, and Li knows that billions of Asian fans worldwide are now following her career.  She’s said that she hopes to motivate her country’s younger generation to pick up rackets so that there may eventually be more top Chinese competitors in global tennis.  So far the women’s team has had greater success in tennis than China’s men, and Li in particular provides young Asian girls with a strong and charismatic role model.  With her outgoing and independent personality, some see her as a key representative of the new China, showing that individual freedom can lead to great accomplishment rather than being suppressed or viewed with suspicion. Coincidentally, Li’s French Open win came on the 22nd anniversary of the Tiananmen Square tragedy, and perhaps that unfortunate contrast will spur China’s political leaders to begin reconsidering some of their restrictions on citizens’ rights.  The world has changed since Tiananmen, and as China’s profile rises on the global stage, including in sports, this issue will have to be addressed in some manner.  Meanwhile, Li Na stands proudly as a leader not just in her sport, but in the hopes of her country and the hearts of fans around the world as well.


Career Statistics

(source: Wikipedia )

 

Grand Slam finals

Singles: 1 (0 titles, 1 runner-ups)

Outcome

Year

Championship

Surface

Opponent in Final

Score in Final

Runner-up

 2011 Australian Open (1)
Hard Kim Clijsters 6-3, 3-6, 3-6

 

WTA Tour finals (11)

Singles finals: 9 (4–5)

Winner — Legend (pre/post 2010)
Grand Slam tournaments (0,1)
WTA Tour Championships (0,0)
Tier I / Premier Mandatory & Premier 5 (0,0)
Tier II / Premier (1–0)
Tier III, IV & V / International (3–4)

Titles by Surface

Hard (3–1)

Grass (1–1)

Clay (0–2)

Carpet (0–0)

Outcome

No.

Date

Tournament

Surface

Opponent in Final

Score in Final

Winner

1.

October 3, 2004

Guangzhou, China

Hard

Martina Suchá

6–3, 6–4

Runner-up

1.

May 1, 2005

Estoril, Portugal

Clay

Lucie Šafářová

6–7(4), 6–4, 6–3

Runner-up

2.

May 7, 2006

Estoril, Portugal

Clay

Zheng Jie

6–7(4), 7–5 retired

Winner

2.

January 5, 2008

Gold Coast, Australia

Hard

Victoria Azarenka

4–6, 6–3, 6–4

Runner-up

3.

March 8, 2009

Monterrey, Mexico

Hard

Marion Bartoli

6–4, 6–3

Runner-up

4.

June 14, 2009

Birmingham, United Kingdom

Grass

Magdaléna Rybáriková

6–0, 7–6(2)

Winner

3.

June 13, 2010

Birmingham, United Kingdom

Grass

Maria Sharapova

7–5, 6–1

Winner

4.

January 14, 2011

Sydney, Australia
Hard Kim Clijsters

7–6(3), 6–3

Runner-up

5.

January 28, 2011

Australian Open, Melbourne, Australia

Hard

Kim Clijsters

3–6, 6–3, 6–3

Doubles (2)

 

Wins (2)

No.

Date

Tournament

Surface

Partner

Opponent in Final

Score in Final

1.

June 18, 2000 Tashkent, Uzbekistan
Hard Li Ting Iroda Tulvaganova
Anna Zaporozhanova

3–6, 6–2, 6–4

2.

June 18, 2006

Birmingham, United Kingdom

Grass

Jelena Jankovic Jill Craybas
Liezel Huber

6–2, 6–4

 

 

ITF Circuit (35)

No.

Date

Tournament

Surface

Opponent in Final

Score in Final

1.

June 13, 1999

Shenzhen, China

Hard

Yang-Jin Chung

6–2, 6–3

2.

June 20, 1999

Shenzhen, China

Hard

Yang-Jin Chung

6–0, 6–0

3.

August 29, 1999

Westende, Belgium

Clay

Daphne van de Zande

6–3, 6–1

4.

January 23, 2000

Boca Raton, Florida

Hard

Sandra Cacic

6–4, 6–3

5.

March 26, 2000

Nanjing, China

Hard

Marie-Ève Pelletier

7–6, 6–2

6.

April 2, 2000

Nanjing, China

Hard

Ding Ding

6–2, 6–2

7.

April 16, 2000

Shenyang, China

Hard

Sun Tiantian

6–0, 6–4

8.

April 23, 2000

Dalian, China

Hard

Li Ling Chen

6–4, 6–4

9.

May 14, 2000

Seoul, South Korea

Clay

Eun-Ha Kim

6–3, 7–6

10.

May 28, 2000

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Hard

Wynne Prakusya

6–1, 6–2

11.

July 9, 2000

Civitanova, Italy

Clay

Emmanuelle Gagliardi

6–3, 4–6, 7–6

12.

April 22, 2001

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Hard

Roberta Vinci

6–4, 7–5

13.

July 29, 2001

Guangzhou, China

Hard

Liu Nannan

6–1, 6–2

14.

February 10, 2002

Midland, U.S.

Hard Indoors

Mashona Washington

6–1, 6–2

15.

May 23, 2004

Beijing, China

Hard

Seiko Okamoto

6–4, 6–4

16.

May 30, 2004

Tongliao, China

Hard

Bahia Mouhtassine

6–4, 2–6, 7–6

17.

June 6, 2004

Wulanhaote, China

Hard

Liu Nannan

6–0, 6–0

18.

June 13, 2004

Beijing, China

Hard Indoors

Suchanun Viratprasert

6–2, 6–4

19.

October 31, 2004

Shenzhen, China

Hard

Sun Tiantian

6–3, 4–6, 6–2

 

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