Asians have never been a force to reckon with in the tennis arena and most of the celebrations for the most populous continent in the game come from victories in doubles (men’s, women’s and mixed) or some other mega-sports events, but never a Grand Slam winner or a world No. 1.
Things took a U-turn on June 4, 2011 at the Roland Garros as the gritty frame of Li Na, the lone Asian in the list of Top-10 ranked players, lifted the Women’s Singles Grand Slam title. The rebellious Chinese sensation gave the world a glimpse of things to come with Asia finally making a mark in the predominantly American and European tennis bastion.
Li Na’s extraordinary story is interspersed with rebellion and will over comfort. She started playing tennis at the age of nine and turned pro when she was 17. She is the only big name Chinese athlete to have broken away from China’s state-supported sports system despite fears of heavy backlash in 2008.
She could not win a medal in the Beijing Olympics playing as a part of the system but the exposure of the event made one thing clear to her – She would not be a world champion with the limited options of coaching and training available to her in China.
Thus the maverick decision to shift her base to the US, where she bagged a deal that got her the best of coaches, more money and most importantly, space to be herself. Being in a sport in which a player stays in his/her prime for a maximum of around a decade, she had little time and success was not coming by easily.
To add to her woes, she was constantly picking up one injury after the other or she was embroiled in controversies that came along with being a free spirit in the Chinese state sports fabric. First, it was a two-year hiatus from competition in her early 20s due to, according to some, a tiff with the China`s National Tennis Team, while some attributed the absence due to her educational pursuits.
Then came a terrible ankle injury in 2005 that saw her staring from the sidelines, followed by an almost six month loss in 2007 owing to a rib injury. Injuries notwithstanding, she kept on bouncing back with ITF and WTA wins, constantly climbing up the ladder.
Li Na then took one of the toughest decisions of her personal and professional life, sacking her husband and coach Jiang Shan to employ German trainer Alex Stober, a man who had trained Pete Sampras, Tommy Haas, Gustavo Kuerten, Rainer Schuettler and Andre Agassi. Her goal was clear, she would not be satiated till she put a Grand Slam trophy on her mantle.
From then on, it was endless hours of honing her art on the court while other tennis starlets were busy attending Beverly Hills parties and endorsing cosmetic brands. The French Open is considered as the most strenuous event in the tennis calendar and her triumph on the claycourt has sent one simple message: Not only is she good enough to be the best, she has the will to make it happen too.