Thanks Li Na

Li Na - 2012 Cincy
Oh what a sad time for the tennis world on the heels of Li Na's announcement that she is retiring from tennis.

The Chinese woman achieved so many firsts not just in women's tennis, but tennis in general, and she was a groundbreaker in so many ways. I was lucky to witness a few of her milestones in person, including her run at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and her first grand slam final at the 2011 Australian Open. How amazing it has been to watch the surge in her tennis as well as her popularity both in China and globally.

Li Na, Eastbourne 2013
I lived in Beijing, China for two years from 1999-2001 and tennis was not even remotely a sport that got much attention. At that time, badminton, ping pong and women's soccer had all the attention in the Chinese sports world, and I was thrilled anytime Hong Kong's Star Sports had any tennis coverage.

I worked for the China Daily newspaper for part of my time in Beijing, and anytime tennis made the cut for coverage I was delighted, but the news was never about any Chinese players. I can't remember hearing about any tennis tourneys that took place anywhere in China at the time, and couldn't have named a Chinese player back then.

Fast forward seven years to 2008, when Beijing hosted the Summer Olympics and things had changed so much, so quickly. Li Na was one of four Chinese women in the singles draw (the others were Peng Shuai, Zheng Jie and Yan Zi) and was ranked #42 in the world at the time. I was so keen to see how the Chinese ladies would do in their home country and was lucky enough to attend many days of tennis.

Zheng Jie made it to the third round, Peng Shaui won a round and Yan Zi lost in the first round, but would partner with Zheng Jie to take bronze in the doubles.

Li Na arriving to face Venus Williams - 2008 Beijing Olympics
But Li Na....she would make a run to the semifinals and was part of the two of the most memorable matches I saw at the Olympics. She had ousted #3 seed Svetlana Kuznetsova in the first round and had advanced to the quarterfinal stage to face Venus Williams, who was the 7th seed and had just won her 5th Wimbledon.

I thought Venus had a great shot to advance to the medal rounds but in a great, great match, Li Na would thrill the locals and upset Venus 7-5, 7-5.  This was a tense match, as the Chinese fans just didn't understand tennis etiquette. They didn't know they needed to be so quiet, or not shout out often during points or not use their phones during play. Li Na got annoyed with the crowd during this match and at one point stared down a fan who called a ball out during a rally. Here's my recap of that match and others that day.

In the semifinals, Li Na faced 6th seed Dinara Safina and one of the tensest tennis matches I'd ever seen. I blogged about it here and won't repeat all the details but it was so tense I actually left after the first set to go watch Venus and Serena contest a doubles match.

At the time, I actually felt happy that Li Na went onto lose that match to Safina because I was so irate at the Chinese crowd. I have never seen a player's coach stand up and scream at the chair umpire to do something about the crowd other than at Davis Cup. I mean, Safina was getting booed and laughed at constantly in that first set for fist pumping a point or catching a ball toss. Oof. But tennis wasn't a common sport there - I'm sure most of the Chinese fans in attendance had never watched live tennis before.

A few years later, in early 2010, I was living in Auckland, New Zealand and Li Na was competing in the ASB Classic. I was excited to see her again and at the time she was ranked at No. 15 in the world. Sadly, Li Na lost in the first round quite badly to Kaia Kanepi, but after she lost she did what many people do when they visit New Zealand - she bungy jumped!

Check out the video below:

At the time, I worked for Tourism New Zealand as the PR Manager for Asian markets. Once we got wind that Li Na did the bungy jump we got photos from the company and had our Chinese PR agency send them to Chinese media outlets. That photo ended up being published EVERYWHERE. I couldn't believe how much interest there was in the photo and it really hit me how much of a star she was back in China. How quickly things changed!

Li Na pre-bungy jump in Auckland. Photo: WTA
After she left Auckland, Li Na would again defeat Venus Williams in the Australian Open quarterfinals (7-5 in the third set), and put a scare into Serena in their semifinal clash. Serena battled hard and would win in two tiebreakers and go on to win her 5th Aussie Open in the final. (See highlights here). After her run in Melbourne, Li Na broke into the top 10 for the first time.

The Australian Open would be the place of Li Na's best grand slam successes and the next year she'd make the first of her three finals at the Aussie Open. In the 2011 semifinals, she fought off a match point against then No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki and ended up coming back from a set and break down to make the final. The crowd LOVED her and we got to witness her memorable on-court interview when she talked about feeling tired due to her husband's snoring. Her jokes, her laughter, it was just a joy to witness and hear the crowd so warmly embrace her. Sadly (for me anyway), she would lose the final to Kim Clijsters after leading by a set but of course she'd win the French Open months later to become the first Chinese player to win a grand slam. (I wrote about the 2011 AO final here.)

Here's her hilarious semifinal presser:

The 2011 Aussie Open final would be the first of four slam finals, and it's fitting that she won her second slam at the "Grand Slam of Asia-Pacific." Tennis in Asia is now booming and especially on the women's side it would just not be possible without Li Na. It's sad that she will be unable to play in the inaugural Wuhan Open which starts next week in her hometown. I will have my tissues ready for the tribute the WTA is planning to hold the next week in Beijing.

The tributes to Li Na, her career and contributions to the sport are flooding in and her letter announcing her retirement is well worth a read. And I loved this post by SI featuring some of the best Li Na quotes from her career.

Others will say it more poignantly that I can, but thank you Li Na for being a trailblazer, a true individual, a joy on the court, a comedian, a fighter and a strong woman.

You will be missed.

Xie xie nin.

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