A path-breaker for Asia

“Winning my first major at the Roland Garros in 2011 proved that even Asians could win Grand Slam singles titles. It was good for all Asian players, and it gave me a lot of confidence too,” says Li Na (in pic), a nominee for the 2014 Laureus World Sportswoman of the Year award.

Even as tennis has expanded into a truly global sport, its talent pool in Asia has always lagged behind that of the Americas, Europe and Australia. Much of this can be attributed to the absence of a player who could revolutionise an entire generation.

However, in China’s Li Na, Asia finally found a pivot to rally around. She became the first player from the region to win the singles title at a major in 2011, in Paris, and then added one more in Melbourne last year. The 33-year-old was forced into retirement due to a dodgy knee last September, but by then she had left an ever-lasting imprint on Asian tennis.

Excerpts from a media interaction after her nomination for the 2014 Laureus World Sportswoman of the Year award:

Question: How do you feel being nominated for the Laureus Award?

Answer: I think it’s the highest-ever (award) for an athlete. So, really happy.

Being a Chinese athlete, would it mean more to you to win it here in Shanghai?

Well, that’s another reason. But I am already pretty happy because not all athletes get a chance.

In 2011, you became the first Chinese woman to win a Grand Slam title. What was your reaction?

It proved that even Asians could win Grand Slam singles titles. It was good for all Asian players, and it gave me a lot of confidence too. May be one day they will say ‘I can do even better than her.’

After your win in Paris, apparently you spoke to your mom over the phone. How was that conversation?

My mom called and said, ‘Hey, what happened? You just won one tournament and your picture is on the front page of all newspapers?’ I said, ‘Yeah, Mom, don’t worry. I just win one tournament.’ Since my mom was not interested in any sport, she didn’t know how big it was.

Of your two Slams, Roland Garros (2011) and Australian Open (2014), which one is more important, and why?

For me personally, I prefer the Australian Open because the second one is always much tougher. Because you never know what can happen after the first win. I had to plan for myself and I was very happy to finally make it.

How important was it to have been trained by your husband?

It’s very tough to find a balance between the husband and the coach. So if you have chance, just find another coach (laughs).

Now that you’ve finished playing, your life is away from tennis. How is that change?

At least for now, the pressure is lot less. I do miss fighting on the court, because tennis was with me for over 20 years and it can’t be separated.

So, you miss tennis. But is there anything about it that you don’t miss?

I don’t miss the travelling! When I used to play, I had to travel every week. But now I have more time with my friends and family.

Justine Henin, after she retired, actually missed tennis so much that she came back. Do you think that’s possible for Li Na?

I already miss that (laughing). But I don’t think it can happen. The last year was very tough because I couldn’t handle my knee anymore. But I wish my children can one day stand up on the court.

On the Tour it was obviously competitive. But were you surprised by the level of emotion and praise that you received from other players when you retired?

Yes, of course. It’s not easy to find friends on the Tour. But I still have like four or five pretty good friends. We still contact each other.

Who would you consider among your closest friends?

I like Petra Kvitova. I liked the style she played. I really wish she could win all of the tournaments.

When you started playing, tennis wasn’t so popular in China. Your great legacy is that tennis has become more popular. How can you describe the changes?

I think tennis started growing in 2004 when we won the Olympic doubles gold medal. After that, there was a lot of attention on women’s tennis. Right now, there are so many tournaments in China and kids can see top players play.

You’ve been a part of this growth. You’re modest to say so, but it has largely been because of you. How does that make you feel?

I like to hear that. But I still have to say, it’s not only about Li Na. A lot of athletes are doing very well. Also the WTA; they now have an office in Beijing.

What do you expect from Asia going forward? And if you can reference China and India, what do you expect from some of these great Asian superpowers?

China right now has excellent academies. More people now like to pick up the racquet.

That’s possibly true of India as well? Countries have got economies that are booming. Do you think sport comes with a big economy?

I think sport always has the link with the economy. So we can expect to see very good Indian players coming through again.

Is there anything you regret not doing in your tennis career, like winning Wimbledon or holding a record against someone like Serena?

I wish I could beat Serena. I played against her many times and I only beat her once. I wish that number had been much higher.

N. Sudarshan