Friday, September 19, 2014

The bird that sticks out has flown: Li Na retires from tennis

The Chinese proverb is a warning to all about the consequences of not conforming: The bird that sticks out always gets shot. "Be the bird that sticks out," Li Na countered, and she was--and is--the bird that sticks out, spreads its wings and soars above the dreary expectations and phony restrictions below her. In a world--and not just a sports world--where there are so few role models for girls, Li--throughout her career--has demonstrated courage and authenticity, and has done so with charm, candor and a deliciously mischievous wit.

Li announced her retirement from professional tennis today, citing recurring problems with both knees. The 32-year-old's announcement was not a surprise, but the reality of her retirement affects tennis fans all over the world, and especially in Asia. Largely because of Li, Asian tennis is now a major factor in the women's tour.

The WTA icon's career spanned 15 years, and was frequently punctuated by huge highs and devastating lows. As a little girl, she played badminton, and when it was suggested she use her backhand skills in tennis instead, her family and community didn't know what tennis was. She did make the change, though, and became involved with the Chinese national tennis team. In 2002, she left the team to work on a degree in journalism. At the time, some reports stated that she left because the national tennis team would not let her choose her own coach; others stated that her departure was due to the strictness of the coaching system.

Li returned in 2004, and in 2006, she married Jiang Shan, who was her coach for much of her career. Two years later, Li left the national team for good and she also parted ways with the state-operated sports system in her country. This was a major step, in that it meant that she could choose her own coaches and trainers and would also be responsible for her own expenses. It also meant that 8% of her winnings would go to the state, as opposed to 65%.

Plagued by injury throughout her career, Li suffered from problems with her knees, her back, her rib, and her ankle. All athletes get injured. but Li went through a period in which she could not sustain any momentum because of injuries. To make matters worse, the Chinese star became known for choking away big matches, and for sometimes not even seeming to be fully present during big matches.

Late in her career, Li would hire Carlos Rodriguez, former coach of Justine Henin, and he went about not only improving Li's fitness and her game, but doing what he could to counter her self-defeating beliefs. According to Rodriguez--and Li has affirmed this opinion in several interviews--Li had trouble believing in herself because, in her formative tennis years, she had been given only criticism, and no praise or encouragement.

But even with all the problems Li faced, she used her abundant talent, personal strength, and incomparable personality to emerge as an international symbol of all that is good about sport. She won two majors, the 2011 French Open and the 2014 Australian Open (while saving a match point in the third round). She was the Australian Open runner-up twice, in 2011 and 2013. Li won nine singles titles and two doubles titles, she was a member of the Chinese Fed Cup team for many years, and she was a member of the Chinese Olympic Team in 2000, 2008 and 2012. Li's highest singles ranking was number 2 in the world.

Statistics, however, just don't provide an accurate picture of Li Na, and what her career has meant to women's tennis, and to Chinese tennis, in particular. She really did "open the door" for Chinese players to emerge as significant members of the tour, in both singles and doubles. Li Na was the first Chinese player to win a WTA title, the first Chinese player to reach the top 10 and the first Asian player to win a major. Twice, she has appeared on the cover of Time Magazine.

Known by her countrywomen and -men as Big Sister Na, Li has also been called The Great Wall of China by opponents who could not penetrate her defensive strategies. Her precision-point and powerful backhand can easily be viewed as a standard for the women's game.

I remember a time when Li had not yet mastered the English language, and her press conferences were unintentionally funny because she answered every question "yes" or "no." Later, when she became fluent in English, her on-court interviews and press conferences featured either blunt, often brutal self-criticism, or hilarity of the sort that left me wiping tears from my face, I had laughed so hard and for so long. (Li and Jelena Jankovic used to be doubles partners, and one can only imagine what those conversations were like.)

"Anger is stronger than sorrow, and anger can keep you from collapsing," Li wrote in her book, Li Na: My Life. I have thought about that belief a lot, about what it has probably meant to Li and her career, and even about what it has meant to my own life. There is something so fully human and open about Li that fans all over the world were drawn to her; she freely talked about the types of struggles that all of us face in one way or another.

Jiang Shan, Li's husband, and the subject of many of her jokes, became a personality in his own right during the course of Li's career. Li ultimately decided that it was better for their marriage for him to be her hitting partner and not her coach, and she kept up a string of anecdotes that included everything from his annoying snoring to his fear of her well-known credit card shopping rampages.

With all her joking, Li also made it clear that Jiang's support made it possible for her to go through everything she had to go through in order to succeed on the tour. When she won the Australian Open, she thanked him for being such a nice guy. "Fix the drink, fix the rackets...." And, she added--as only Li could--"also, you are so lucky--find me."

It's almost impossible to pick one's favorite Li Na moment. Her acceptance speech at the Australian Open trophy ceremony is considered a comedy classic, but there are other memorable quotes:

"People in China say 'If you love your children, send them to New York. If you hate your children, also send them to New York.'"

On what motivates her: "Prize money."

The first of her Australian Open thank-you mentions: "Max, agent, make me rich. Thanks a lot."

"I know when so many people ask where I'm from, I say Wuhan. They say small town. Not so many people. Just like 10 million."

When asked by Rennae Stubbs if she would name her rackets if she won in Melbourne: "I have eight rackets. If you want, I call them Li Na One, Li Na Two...until Li Na Eight."

No review of Li Na's career would be complete without a mention of the bizarre final she played against Victoria Azarenka at the 2013 Australian Open. In the second set, Li rolled her ankle, and though she had it taped, it would affect her for the rest of the match. But that wasn't all--in the third set, she fell down and cracked her head. And while the occasion itself was far from humorous, Li made it hilarious when she cracked up during the brief neuro exam upon being asked to follow the physio's finger and to answer questions about her orientation. At the 2014 tournament, when asked to comment on her preparation, she quickly replied, "Special. Not falling down."

Nike, one of Li's longtime sponsors, has already announced it's Be the Bird That Sticks Out campaign to honor the retiring Chinese star. This is a fitting tribute to the woman who wore a shirt bearing the Chinese characters for "My heart has no limits" at her post-Australian Open press conference this year. It won't be easy for fans to say goodbye to one of the most beloved champions the WTA has ever produced.

I leave with you with one final piece of Li Na wisdom (video no longer available for embedding).


svente said...

Lovely tribute to a lovely player. I won't say more because you've said it so well already. I'll miss her.

Todd.Spiker said...

Very nice, Diane. Although, I must say, you've had to write TOO MANY of these goodbye posts to your favorite players lately!

We need to send silent mental orders to JJ: "Don't even think about it... don't even think about it... don't even think about it." ;)

Diane said...

Thanks to both of you.

Yes, I try to not even think about the idea that JJ will actually retire some day. I'm prepared for Schiavone's announcement, though--but not Flavia's! I hope she sticks around a while.

Doug M said...

Spot on, Di!

Diane said...

Thanks, Doug :)

sunny nine said...

Just a thank you, Diane. You very much captured (if one can) the Li Na we have come to know.

Diane said...

You're welcome, Sunny. It was a (bittersweet) pleasure.

Sabey said...

Thanks Diane! Great job as always.

Diane said...

I appreciate that, Sabey :)