Li Na’s retirement from tennis will leave a huge gap in both Chinese tennis and the WTA (Women’s Tennis Association). The WTA has invested heavily into breaking into the Chinese market and both the WTA and Chinese tennis have a lot of stadiums to fill- there are ten tournaments in China right now, compared to two in 2008. Finding someone with the personality and slam winning game of Li Na to sell out those seats on a tour that struggles to pack stadiums in countries with a rich history of tennis is going to be as big a task as it was for Li Na to decide that her knees could no longer stand up to the stresses of the WTA circuit.
Li Na’s shoes will need very big feet to fill them. The 33 year won two grand slams, seven other career titles, reached number two in the world, and earned close to $17 million in prize money in a career which ended due to chronic injuries.
Perhaps, though, Li Na’s greatest achievement was becoming Asia’s first Grand Slam champion. That feat, her 2011 French Open victory, sent her star rising into the stratosphere as big brands sought to pick her up and put her on billboards posing with their product.
But Li Na has not just become a famous face. She is famous for her personality, too, with her popular speeches- her ‘lucky’ husband is often the butt of her humor in prize giving ceremonies- and her personality shines through as she smiles on billboards across the skylines of Beijing and Shanghai, and on magazines and TV screens across the country. Billboards which get young Chinese fans dreaming they could win slams, too, in the likes of London, New York, Melbourne and Paris.
As China embraced Li Na, the WTA followed. The governing body of the world’s largest Women’s professional sports circuit, embraced China with an aggression that could match Li Na’s own formidable big ball hitting. The WTA set up tournaments in the new tennis playgrounds of Suzhou and Guangzhou while letting previously prestigious tournaments in Berlin and Tokyo vanish or decline in status. The move East was driven by the Li Na effect, the player described as the most important player in the world by the WTA’s CEO Stacey McAllister. One of Li Na’s rewards was a tournament in her own hometown of Wuhan, a Premier 5 event no less, something she wrote in her retirement letter felt unbelievable. But that most important player is now gone, and just weeks before the first tournament where her mother could have seen her play.
So, whose mothers will be sitting courtside at future events among the current crop of Chinese players? Shuia Peng’s might be the obvious answer. The Chinese knocked out Agniezska Radwanska on her run to the U.S Open semi-finals. Peng, who was one of the few players able to defeat Kim Clijsters in her 2005 hard court dominance, may be approaching her 29th birthday, however winning slams in your 30s is part of the norm for the WTA nowadays, and if Peng can capitalize on ever-opening slam fields, she could be just what the WTA ordered.
There are certainly plenty of young WTA hopefuls eager to have someone to lead them into the second week of slams. Only a couple of weeks ago in Guangzhou, five Chinese players upset seeds in the opening rounds. In addition, Jie Zheng, a former semi-finalist in Australia and at Wimbledon, is still playing, ranked 68. Shuai Zhang is ranked 33. Just outside the top 100, at 102, is Saisai Zheng who with 3 other players makes up China’s presence in the WTA top 200. Meanwhile, in the junior ranks, Shilin Zu is ranked third on the ITF Girl’s rankings, Ziyue Sun is at No.17 and three more Chinese players are ranked in the top 100. In the top 500, China has 29 players in all, all waiting to become blooming ‘golden flowers’ on a circuit where the roads to the elite are literally paved with gold.
Li has earned a fortune from tennis, and she will not forget her own debt to the sport. Whoever manages to follow Li Na and engage the media and public with their speeches and big hitting will be helped by Li herself. Li Na’s retirement letter was a testimony to her contribution to Chinese tennis and her future involvement, which includes the setting up of a Li Na Tennis academy. Li Na has always been proud to represent China, and did so on-court, all the way until aged 33. Her body simply gave up on her, rather than her giving up on tennis. Thankfully for the WTA and Chinese tennis, Li Na’s departure from the WTA Circuit does not mean she will be giving up on tennis in China, and the WTA and Chinese tennis can be hopeful they will not only see her legacy continue, but she may even be the driving force behind its future growth.
Commentary by Christian Deverille