Li Na learns from her past

Updated: 2013-09-28 07:14

By Sun Xiaochen (China Daily)

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Li Na learns from her past

Chinese tennis player Li Na and Novak Djokovic from Serbia share a cake to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the China Open on Friday.[Photo/China Daily] 

Sports icon says responsibility essential on and off tennis court

Tough workouts lead to victory on the court, but a responsible attitude makes one a champion in life.

That's what China's Grand Slam champion ace Li Na has learned from her ups and downs during the 2013 WTA season and what she tries to pass on to the next generation, which grew up admiring the Wuhan native.

"It wasn't until recently that I began to understand that my job as a professional tennis player involves more than just hitting the ball hard on the court," Li told China Daily in the player lounge before her exhibition match against Serbian World No 1 Novak Djokovic at the National Tennis Center on Friday.

"It also requires more responsibility off the court, where I realized that I have an obligation to do something that I might not have cared for before but will actually influence younger players who are watching my every move on and off the court."

Li appeared at a charity program organized by Right to Play International, an organization whose goal is to enhance child development, to show her support for blind children in Beijing on Thursday before holding media interviews.

Li's impact as the world's No 5 women's tennis player and a Chinese sports icon have been larger than she expected.

Gaining celebrity status after her epic victory at Roland Garros in 2011, Li has seen the number of followers on her micro blog soar to more than 21 million. Earlier this year, she appeared on the cover of Time magazine and was named in its annual list of the "100 Most Influential People in the World".

With each of her words interpreted differently on the modern professional sports stage, the huge media attention sometimes is a burden and even a distraction to her.

However, Li said smoothing her once-tense relationship with the Chinese media while staying calm in the face of unfair reports is part of the effort she has made to maintain a positive public image.

"Tennis was just part of my life. Some difficulties that happen on and off tennis courts will somehow happen in my life as well. If I can't solve them now, they will resurface to haunt me in the future," Li said.

The recent controversy over Li's two furious outbursts to Chinese reporters has provided life lessons for the 31-year-old.

After her second-round loss at the French Open in May, Li was asked, "What do you want to say to your home fans in China?" She replied angrily, "I just lost a match, and that's it. Do I need to get on my knees and kowtow to them?"

When the same reporter asked the question again after her third-round match at Wimbledon, the star criticized the reporter in a later TV interview. "How dare he? Doesn't he have any shame?" she said.

Li's comments soon drew criticism in the media and outrage from postings on China's popular micro-blogging platform Sina Weibo, even among her 21 million followers.

Li said her response was taken out of context, which really irritated her at the time, but she's learned to release her negative emotions by sharing with others.

"I felt really angry back then, but now it's just a funny story to me," she said.

Fans also embraced their once-fiery hero.

Li Hang, who waited in lines to buy tickets for Li Na's charity match on Friday, said Li Na's straightforward personality has won his heart.

"She might say some things that are harsh. But it's from her heart, and that won't affect our love for her", Li Hang said

The lack of world-recognized sports celebrities has made Li Na the only target for Chinese media, especially since Olympic champion hurdler Liu Xiang and retired basketball icon Yao Ming have stepped out of the spotlight, said freelancer Mark Dreyer, a former sportswriter for The Associated Press and ESPN.

"With the retirement of Yao, Li is unquestionably the most globally recognized Chinese sports star still plying his or her trade. Since that triumph (at the French Open in 2011), she has gone from strength to transcending her sport.

"Several other top players have won more than Li, but none of them has the unanimous backing of 1.3 billion people, who now see tennis in a different light compared to just a few years ago."