TENNIS: Chinese tennis ace Li Na — tenacity with a smile

One-on-one with Chinese tennis ace Li Na

Maybe not as known to the Shanghai crowds as hometown heroes Liu Xiang or Yao Ming, but Li Na is set to join China’s pantheon of heroic athletes after reaching the final of the Australian Open

By Christopher Johnson 26 January, 2011

If she wasn’t trying to win China’s first ever Grand Slam singles title in tennis, Li Na could do well as a stand-up comedian.

Interviewed on court after her barnstorming run towards the final, Li runs off the one-liners with the same hard flat punch as her winners on the court.

Asked if her husband and new coach Jiang Shan has made her a better player this year, she quips in fluent English, “I’m a better person this year.”

Even now my Mom doesn’t watch me play tennis. She’s so nervous. I think maybe she forgets me. I say to her ‘Please travel with me.’ She says ‘I want to stay home because I don’t want to watch.’— Li Na, Chinese tennis star

As the Australian crowd warms to her footloose style, Li explains the difference between being coached by her husband instead of a Chinese national team official.

“I can take the credit card and buy anything I want. But, I can’t get anything if I don’t win,” she says.

Asked if she will study her next opponent, she says, “No, this is my husband’s job. I will just relax and watch TV, that’s all.”

Making her mark Down Under

Relaxed and tanned, Li has played her best tennis in Australia.

She reached the semis in Melbourne last year, and two weeks ago won in Sydney, roaring back from 0-5 to beat Kim Clijsters and claim the biggest singles title ever for a Chinese woman. Entering the Australian Open as the ninth seed, Li has defeated bigger women from Sweden, Russia, Czech and Belorussia — all countries with longer tennis traditions than China.

And now she is the first Chinese woman to ever make a Grand Slam final, rallying huge support from tennis and non-tennis fans in her homeland.

Her tenacity on the court, and carefree smile off it, appeal to more than just Chinese fansin Australia, as even elderly ladies and beefy young males cheer “Go China!” at her matches.

“The first reason we like her is that she’s Chinese,” says Kuan Kuan, a finance student in Melbourne originally from China’s Guizhou Province. “She works very hard. It’s very inspiring for Chinese. Tennis is a tradition of England, but we are keeping up.”

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Li Na at the Australian Open -- fansNa Li signs autographs and meets fans after winning her match last Sunday.“Her wonderful personality will encourage a lot of people in China to play tennis,” says Chen Ying, a Fujian Province native now working in Melbourne. “Having her husband coach her is very helpful. Family support is very important for players to play better.”

Li admits she’s not as famous in China as basketball tower Yao Ming or hurdler Liu Xiang.

“If they watch tennis, people know who you are. They are so nice, they give you space. They don’t demand your autograph,” Li says.

“Chinese people are everywhere. Everywhere I play in the world, many Chinese fans come to say ‘come on.’ Before, maybe only my coach would come with me, now there are many fans.”

Fighting her way to the top

I think many young players don’t know about working, they can get whatever they want … After my father died, my mom had to take care of everything. It was tough for her. I learned a lot from her about working hard for everything.— Li Na, Chinese tennis star

Though players coming from China’s harsh winter must adjust to the dry Australian summer heat, growing up in Wuhan’s 40 degree summer climate has given Li an advantage in Australia over European players from more moderate climates, says Pei Zhu, a Beijing-based cameraman, originally from Wuhan.

“Wuhan can be extremely hot in summer — 40 or 42 degrees. It’s an advantage for her in Australia over European women,” he says. “She’s the pride of Wuhan. She represents the spirit of the city: fight for everything, and be mentally strong.”

Growing up in the 1980s, Li says her parents in Wuhan encouraged her to play whatever she wanted. She first tried badminton, which honed her reflexes and penchant for spraying the ball around the court to wear down heftier opponents.

Taking up tennis at age nine, she was 12 when she met another budding tennis ace, Jiang Shan, who would become a Chinese national player, her husband in 2006 and coach this year.

When Li was 14, her father died. Her mother, raising her alone, taught her about determination and the mental toughness that gives Li, now 28, an edge over pampered younger players.

“I think many young players don’t know about working, they can get whatever they want. They think ‘I need a phone, I need a computer.’ The family just gives it to them. They don’t need to do something to get it. After my father died, my mom had to take care of everything. It was tough for her. I learned a lot from her about working hard for everything.”

That Wuhan work ethic has earned her US$3.5 million, including more than US$100,000 already in January.

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Li Na at the Australian Open -- on the courtLi Na says her mother, who raised her after her father died when she was 14 years old, taught her the value of hard work. Li often outworks and outruns younger opponents.It hasn’t been easy money, and she had many reasons to give up. Turning pro in 1999 and winning early, she dropped to 303rd in the world in 2001 and had to struggle through qualifying rounds just to enter tour events. She barely played for two years, and then lost several months of 2005 and 2007 due to ankle and rib injuries.

In her mid-20s, when many women burn out on tour, Li began to blossom. She entered the 2011 Australian Open at 9th seed.

China allowed her to opt out of the national training system, where she had to remit 60 percent of her tour earnings, to play on her own. That allowed her to remit only 12 percent back to the country.

She hired Swedish coach Thomas Hogstedt, who had been working with the Chinese team since 2005. When Hogstedt took over coaching Maria Sharapova, Li decided her best option was already close by.

Mixing work and play

I can take the credit card and buy anything I want. But I can’t get anything if I don’t win.— Li Na, Chinese tennis star

“I chose my husband because he can understand what I do on the court. If I am nervous on the court, or shouting, he can understand. If not him, another coach might think ‘What is this stupid girl doing on the court,'” says Li.

“The most important thing for us is that we trust each other,” she continues. “He gives me positive thinking. After a massage, he will say ‘Your body feels good, you should trust yourself more.’ Right now we have good communication, so I’m more happy on the court. During the practice, if I don’t like some drill, I can directly say it to him.”

Like other couples who work together, Li says they draw lines between work time and family time.

“Life is life, tennis is a job. We only talk tennis when we have a match, or are practicing. We couldn’t talk tennis only 24 hours a day,” she says. “If you always concentrate on tennis, you get tired.”

Relaxed during a one-on-one interview in a leafy terrace overlooking fans milling around Melbourne Park, Li says she just wants to “enjoy the day” and “forget about work.”

She takes advice from an Australian reporter on where to find good Chinese restaurantsin Melbourne.

After Melbourne, her immediate goal is to go home to Wuhan to hang out with friends and family over Chinese New Year.

She still hopes her Mom, who is “not a sports person,” will come to enjoy the tennis life, and attend her matches more often.

“Even now my Mom doesn’t watch me play tennis. She’s so nervous. I think maybe she forgets me. I say to her ‘Please travel with me’. She says ‘I want to stay home because I don’t want to watch.’”

Li says she hopes to spend more time with her mother in Wuhan after her career ends.

“After I retire, maybe I have to think about taking care of my family,” she says. “Now my husband takes care of everything for me. So after, I have to take care of him.”

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