By Abigail Johnson
Many other British residents besides me would be straight onto the internet the instant their eyes were open. Their big question would be whether Scotland had chosen to separate themselves from the United Kingdom.
But that wasn’t my question.
My heart uneasy, I was inching closer and closer to finding out whether the awful rumors of the past few days were really true.
Whether it was for real that Li Na, the champion of China, and one of my all-time favorite players, was hanging up her racquet.
No one wanted to believe it. Who would want to lose Li Na, the diamond of tennis? Just weeks ago these retirement stories had been denied. Yet as the whispers mounted again, becoming outright statements that on September 19th, Li Na would announce her decision to the world, you couldn’t ignore the sense of dread.
This morning, as I scrolled down to witness the tributes that were pouring in for a global superstar, it was as though a disbelieving, cold rock of emotions had sat down, hard, inside my heart.
Li Na – twice a Grand Slam champion – had retired from tennis.
It still hasn’t quite sunk in. It’s a reality, and yet it’s also like a dream. Who knows how long it will take – maybe until the Australian Open, when the draw is out and play starts and suddenly you realize her name isn’t there. And you’ll never see the defending champion compete live again. Because after four knee operations and endless fighting through pain, Li Na will not be returning to tour.
It’s a tragic loss for our sport, one that we will continue to feel, as the rest of her generation still lead the fields. And yet it underlines a career so extraordinary, so inspirational, so amazing… that you don’t want to feel sad.
To write a tribute to Li Na would quite simply be impossible. There would never be enough words. There would never be the right words. You could write for hours – about all she’s done for the sport in Asia, the Slams she’s conquered, the people she’s motivated – and then sit back and realize that everything you’ve said doesn’t even begin to cover what you’re feeling about this person. Because Li Na is all about feeling. If you have ever truly experienced her, you’ll know the sensation that you feel in your heart when you watch her play at her best, when you reflect on all that she’s done. That sensation that doesn’t have a name of its own. It’s simply Li Na.
Here are simply six things that tennis will be missing without its princess, Li.
HER INSPIRATION. You’ve heard it all before, but this time really think about it. Asia is a massive continent. Tennis has been played for years upon years. And yet we were into the 2000s before many Asians were starting to watch tennis. And why were they?
Because Li Na defied the odds. Li Na trained and Li Na worked and Li Na pushed. Li Na became the first Chinese player to win a WTA title, to break the top ten. Li Na became the first Asian woman to reach a Grand Slam final, then to win a Grand Slam title. Then she became the highest ranked Asian WTA player of all time.
Li Na awoke a continent. And the Asian players who will attack the tours in years to come will be the proof of just what an inspiration and example Li Na was, and still will be.
HER HUMOR. How could we forget? It has lit up the tennis world, and taken her name beyond it. Tributes from fellow players have regularly labelled Li as the “funniest.” Why cry when you can laugh? (A statement the wonderwoman backed up, in her chosen reaction to the news that an unchallenged ace pretty much cost her victory over Agnieszka Radwanska in the 2013 Wimbledon quarters: “Why should you tell me now? Next time I will challenge it for sure!” she laughed.)
And of course, her 2014 Australian Open victory speech will go down in history. Hilarious from start to finish, comments such as “You’re a nice guy, and also you are so lucky you found me,” to her husband, and words of thanks to her agent for “making me rich” endeared her to the globe. If you needed a smile, you didn’t need to look any further than Li Na. And her press conferences were the best – a few staggered sentences in her soft-but-husky accent one moment, before her infectious smile would light up her face in the next. No one did it like she did.
HER BACKHAND. True, for a good part of her career, Li’s quality of play swung dramatically up and down. But when Li was at her best, you could watch any one of her matches and you would remember that, before you discovered the players themselves – Roger’s personality, Serena’s presence – this was why you fell in love with tennis. Because it could be played how Li Na played it. Her groundstrokes are so, so clean, with a beautiful power rather than a fierce one. Her racquet can kiss the ball and direct it perfectly wherever she desires, whipping it swiftly and seemingly effortlessly.
But of all her awe-inspiring shots, which include brilliant net play, a strong serve and a dangerous forehand, it is the backhand that makes a name for itself. Two-handed and ringing true, it can whistle right down the line or swipe clean across the court. While many a player’s weakness lies in that shot, it was any player’s peril to direct the ball at Li’s. You have to see it to believe it. And thanks to Li Na’s wonderful career, we had the privilege of seeing it again and again. Classic, and legendary.
HER PERSONALITY. Has there ever been as popular a player on the WTA with English as limited as Li’s? The answer is probably no. No one could express themselves in every word and action as Li could. Collected on the court, she played fair and respected her opponents, rarely if ever losing her temper, even when her game deserted her. She had a heart for the fans and showed it as she played her game. Her on and off-court interviews always carried her trademark, funny, punchy style, everything she said seeped in honesty. Blunt honesty. There are no secrets with Li Na. What you see is what you get, no questions asked.
Most importantly of all, no one surrounding her had a bad word to say about her – not fellow players, not anyone involved in the sport. Li is reputed as one of the nicest, funniest and pleasurable tennis players, and upon news of her departure, these compliments spilled over from her contemporaries. She deserves nothing less.
HER DETERMINATION. Fighting through hardships at a young age. Surviving grueling training. Overcoming roadblocks. Climbing mountains. Taking a break from the sport, yet coming back to win WTA titles. Finally winning her first Grand Slam at 29 years old. Battling past the urge to retire in 2013, and consequently winning her second Grand Slam and becoming World No. 2. How glad we are that she didn’t retire back then!
These and many more are the trials that Li Na has overcome throughout her career. Her durability, and her persistence to never give in through so much, for so long, have set her up as an example to the next generations.
HER PRESENCE. It drew crowds, and from the crowds it drew gasps. All that Li Na has done in and for tennis has made watching her compete one of the biggest joys of the sport.
And she has frankly made the sport exciting! When Li was in the mix, there was no telling what could happen, what she might pull out of the bag on any given day. Serena lost? Vika lost? Don’t worry – Li’s still here! She could prevent disappointment and arouse interest. And over the past year, she and Serena had formed a solid top two that set the standard for the rest of the tour. On this day she is still ranked in the top ten. She’s a player of the highest quality. And her absence will leave a gaping hole.
Sometimes in a book, one of the main characters is suddenly, prematurely, taken out of the proceedings. You’ve grown attached to them – their unexpected departure leaves you shocked and upset. The story, with its other characters, continues without them.
But there is one very important fact to remember. While a character can be taken out of a story, they can never be written out of it. What has gone before is set in stone, and the lost character always has an impact on the events that follow after.
Li Na, as a player, has departed from the story of tennis. Her fellow competitors will, for the time being, carry on without her. But her phenomenal achievements, and all that she has done for her sport in Asia – and worldwide – is something permanent. Something that can never be erased.
And her legacy will stretch far, far into the future, as those she had inspired rise up, and as all who come to know the game look back at her legendary status.
Li Na will never truly leave tennis.
The woman who always knew exactly what to say (read her heartfelt letter in which she announces her retirement) has left her indelible message to those who will come next.
She showed the billions how to “Be the Bird That Sticks Out.”
Thank you for everything, Li Na. We’ll miss you.