By Steve Flink
For all of us who found out last week that Li Na is bidding farewell to tennis at the age of 32, the news of her departure was regrettable. This affable champion had commenced 2014 by capturing her second Grand Slam singles championship in Melbourne, adding the prestigious Australian Open crown to the 2011 triumph she recorded on the red clay at Roland Garros. When Li performed so commendably on the hard courts at the opening of this season in the land “Down Under”, it seemed entirely possible that she would celebrate at least a couple more seasons in the upper regions of the sport. I figured then that she would have a reasonably good chance of securing one more major title before she put her racket down permanently. I thought she remained highly motivated and goal oriented. I believed that her deep intensity, extraordinary match playing skills and striking athleticism would carry Li inexorably toward more proud moments on the premier stages.
But the body is not always willing to go where the mind wants to travel. Li explained in her retirement press conference that having four knee surgeries has taken a heavy toll on her as a top flight competitor. She had endured no fewer than three operations on her burdensome right knee since March of 2008; she had been forced to have another one on her left knee this past July. She weighed it all thoughtfully in her mind, and then elected to call it a career. No one could blame her for deciding that enough was enough.As Li said, “Most people in the tennis world know that my career has been marked by my troubled right knee. After four surgeries and hundreds of shots injected into my knee weekly to alleviate swelling and pain, my body is begging me to stop the pounding.”
Li had hoped that she could recover from her latest surgery and get back into the flow of competitive tennis, but realized over the summer that her goal was going to be unreachable. “After a few weeks of post-surgery recovery, “she said, “I tried to go through all the necessary steps to get back on the court. While I’ve come back from surgery in the past, this time it felt different. One of my goals was to recover as fast as I could in order to be ready for the first WTA tournament in my hometown. As hard as I tried to get back to being 100 percent, my body kept telling me that, at 32, I will not be able to compete at the top level ever again. The sport is just too competitive, too good, to not be 100 percent.”
Plainly, Li Na did not make this difficult decision cavalierly. She had dealt with the pain all leading athletes must endure for an awfully long time, but now she knows that it would be foolish to keep fighting an enemy that would not surrender. For that reason, because she has evaluated her knee problems comprehensively, since this retirement did not come about without a considerable amount of soul searching and stress, there simply isn’t any reason to question Li or quarrel with what she is doing.It has been a remarkably successful career for this ground breaking individual. No Chinese player had ever taken a singles title at a major before Li ruled at the French Open three years ago to establish herself as the first Asian woman to succeed at a Grand Slam singles event, but her journey toward the top of tennis commenced long before that. She took her first WTA Tour title back in 2004 at Guangzhou. That was the first year she finished a season among the top 100; she stood then at No. 80. Li advanced to No. 57 by the end of the following year, and then in 2006 she improved markedly, finishing at No. 21 in the world after rising into the top 20 in August of that season. Li slipped slightly to No. 29 by the end of 2007, but then pushed her way up the ladder to No. 23 in the 2008 year-end rankings.
Li was on her way to larger success, and her standing kept improving. She concluded 2009 at No. 15 in the world, ended 2010 at No. 11, and that set the stage for her outstanding 2011 campaign, when she was ranked fifth in the world upon the conclusion of the season. Not only did she win the French Open that memorable year, but she also went to the final of the Australian Open, losing in three sets to the more experienced Kim Clijsters 3-6, 6-3, 6-3. Li did not fare particularly well in the 2012 majors—failing to advance beyond the round of 16 in all four Grand Slam events—and yet she still was the No. 7 ranked player in the world of women’s tennis when that campaign was over.
In 2013, Li reached her second final at the Australian Open before losing a hard fought, three set final (4-6, 6-4, 6-3) against Victoria Azarenka. She also was a quarterfinalist at Wimbledon and a semifinalist at the U.S. Open during that stellar season, and she played a terrific final with Serena Williams at the season-ending WTA Championships. Li lost 2-6, 6-3, 6-0, but not before giving the world No. 1 fits across a magnificent opening set. Li was ranked No. 3 in the world for 2013, and her status was indisputable. And then she celebrated a few more high water moments this year, coming through in Australia to take that second major, reaching a career high of No. 2 in the world, impressing a wide range of admirers with her seasoning as a competitor and her enduring will to win.
Thereafter, with the left knee bothering her and the pain becoming increasingly disconcerting, Li was unable to perform the way she wanted. She did reach the semifinals at Indian Wells and the final of Miami over the spring, but thereafter her play deteriorated. She lost in the first round of the French Open and the third round at Wimbledon, and that was that. Li recognized that she had no alternative but to retire, and the game will miss her in many ways—for her attractively packaged backcourt game, her sprightly manner, her engaging court presence, her craftiness and resilience, and her enormously appealing sense of humor.
Li was a pleasure to watch play the game of tennis. Her make or break stroke was the forehand. For a long while, she played that shot dangerously flat, with a very slim margin for error. In the latter stages of her career, under the expert guidance of her coach Carlos Rodriguez, Li added a larger safety net to that side. She learned to give it more air, to add a layer of topspin when needed, to make certain she did not miss while still going for the gusto. Meanwhile, she developed one of the finest two-handed backhands in the women’s game. Off that side, she could be both lethal and consistent. Her returns were scorching off that side, and she could invent angles that were made to order for the galleries. Moreover, Li had a first rate two-hander down the line, so the damage she could do off the backhand was almost limitless. Her serve improved significantly over the years, most notably the first delivery. It must be said that her second serve was much less of a liability over the last couple of years, and was more difficult to attack.
It would have been nice to witness Li Na competing in the latter stages of majors until she was 34 or 35, but it was not meant to be. In the final analysis, that hardly matters. Having won two majors, having made it to No. 2 in the world, having competed at the highest levels of the game for a good long period of time, Li Na can rest assured that she will never be taken for granted or regarded as anything less than a great player. She seems certain to take her place at the International Tennis Hall of Fame in the future. She changed the face of tennis in her country and, with her popularity and impact, Li has could play a substantial role in spawning a new generation of great Chinese players. She represented her nation exceedingly well, made the most of her many opportunities, and appeared at the Grand Slam events for a decade. Do we wish it could have lasted longer? Of course. Is it unfortunate that her knees were not more durable? Absolutely. Was she denied the opportunity to succeed more where it matters the most? Yes indeed.
The fact remains that Li Na was a thorough professional, a first rate sportswoman, and a woman who graced the game with not only her talent but also her sparkle. As she said last week, “I’ve succeeded on a global stage in a sport that a few years ago was in its infancy in China… Winning a Grand Slam title this year and achieving a ranking of world No. 2 is the way I would like to leave competitive tennis. As hard as it’s been to come to this decision, I am at peace with it. I have no regrets.”
That is just the way an athlete of her stature should feel as she departs. Li Na leaves with class and dignity, without rancor or bitterness. No wonder she seems to be holding her head so high on the way out.
Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for tennischannel.com since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.