Joel Drucker: Happy Birthday, Li Na

One of the most influential players in tennis history, Li Na, turns 35 today. Without question, Li’s journey was quite unusual -- in large part, a fight for freedom. She’d grown up in China, pushed by her ambitious father into a state-run sports school at the age of five. Once it was determined that she lacked certain skills to be a badminton player (her father’s sport), another choice was made on her behalf. “They all agreed that I should play tennis,” Li explained in a 2013 New York Times article, “but nobody bothered to ask me.”

Amid harsh training rituals, Li became a superb player. The competitive nature of tennis gave her the chance to travel, both to tournaments and such training spots as the John Newcombe Tennis Ranch in Texas.

Li’s career was marked by a constant push-pull with tennis. She was 14 and away at a tournament when her father died, a loss that sent her family into debt. Later, Chinese tennis officials sought to curtail her romance with the man she would eventually marry, Jiang Shan. At the age of 20, Li opted to take nearly two years off from tennis, returning to school. Li also fought with the leaders of the Chinese tennis community to be awarded a higher percentage of her prize money.

Even after she returned to the circuit, Li gave scarce evidence that she would blossom into a Grand Slam champion. Certainly she had her moments, from 2006 to 2010 reaching three Slam quarters. And then, a month before turning 29, the big breakthrough: Li made it to the finals of the Australian Open, and followed up that effort even more emphatically with a title run at Roland Garros. With more than 100 million Chinese watching, Li had become more than a tennis player. She was now a major market, her popularity generating her millions in endorsement agreements. Three years later, she won the 2014 Australian Open.

Frequently cheeky – such as when she’d joke about her husband’s sleeping habits or her agent’s financial acumen – Li was also quite likeable. And yet, by the time all this success had happened, she had been through so much that it was hard to see her merely enjoying the tennis life well into her 30s. Be it mental, emotional, or physical, it had become clear even through 2014 that Li was in pain, her efforts frustrated by knee pain that had required four surgeries. So it came as no surprise in the fall of ’14 to hear that she was retiring. Li Na’s since had a daughter, Alisa, and in May ’16, announced she was pregnant again – now due any day.

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