Don't beat yourself up for the motherland, the glory is yours

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 January, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 January, 2007, 12:00am

Everything Li Na does on the tennis court is to celebrate and honour her country and its way of life, naturally. As the most prolific singles player in the history of China, Li is expected to give thanks to the mainland sports system that made her great. But Li is also expected to show enough mental fortitude to beat the likes of Martina Hingis, Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova in a grand slam tournament.

The 24-year-old from Wuhan became the first Chinese player to be ranked in the top 30 in the world, the first to be ranked in the top 20 and she now sits at the high-water mark of number 16. At Wimbledon 2006, Li also became the first Chinese player to make the quarter-finals of a grand slam singles before losing to Kim Clijsters.

This week Li demolished number nine seed Dinara Safina 6-2, 6-2 in the Australian Open to set up a fourth-round match against former world number one Martin Hingis. Li claimed before the match she was not awed by Hingis and welcomed the challenge. Just to prove it, she raced through the first set 6-4 before losing the second 6-3.

Pressure - it comes in many shapes and forms. How we handle it invariably defines our being, particularly for professional athletes. Early in her career, Li was known as being temperamental and rebellious. Despite winning a tier three event and doing well in a number of other highly rated tournaments, the good folks from the China Tennis Association (CTA) felt Li was her own worst enemy.

For her part, the young Li saw something entirely different. She was travelling the world to play in tennis events and in the process getting the type of education rarely afforded most people in China.

'The challenge for the CTA increases when girls like Li Na have been out on the tour for a while,' says Rob Smith, a former coach on both the men's and women's pro tours and now the director of tennis at the Aberdeen Marina Club. 'They see what the difference is in terms of coaches and how they are treated and it has a profound effect on them.'

What Li saw was that not all coaches yelled and screamed, and some used alternative methods to build up a young player's fragile confidence.

In early 2002 at 20 years of age - an age where the likes of Hingis, Williams and Sharapova had already won more than one grand slam - Li decided to give up tennis temporarily and enrolled at Huazhong University of Science and Technology in Wuhan. Reasons for her decision vary, but a number of people said she grew frustrated with the archaic methods of the CTA. Li said the move was to help her grow emotionally. 'The time at university has definitely helped,' she said. 'Before I was just a little girl and when something happened on court I couldn't really think properly. I think now I have grown up.'

She rejoined the tour, apparently more grown up and mature. She also embarked on an arduous fitness regime that made her much stronger and the only female Asian player physically capable of playing the power game with the likes of the strapping Williams and Clijsters.

Against Clijsters in the Wimbledon quarter-finals, Li was serving for the second set at 5-2 before imploding and losing the set and match. Against Hingis in Melbourne, she again melted down and lost the third set 6-0. 'Li Na lost to herself,' said the headline in China's The First sports daily, while the Beijing Morning Post led with: 'Sixty-nine unforced errors - generous Li Na hands victory to Hingis.'

Former US Open champion Tracy Austin said Li lost it mentally. 'She's not emotionally secure enough on the court yet. She doesn't know how to be mentally tough and stay in the right frame of mind.'

While they are proud of Hingis in Switzerland, she is hardly flying the flag every time she takes the court. The same with Williams and Sharapova. For Li, it has been made abundantly clear that the glory of 1.3 billion people is on the line every time she plays. She knows it and so do the dinosaurs at the CTA. It's a far more intense pressure than worrying about your second serve.

In Li's heart, she would love to just be a tennis player. Yao Ming has made great strides for China in the NBA. But there are nights when he is off and his teammates can pick him up. No such luck for Li. Raised in a country based on rote learning where conformity and adherence are demanded, she has spent her whole career being told what to do and how to think. Now her mental toughness is being openly questioned. So think for yourself and if you ever win a grand slam it will be much bigger in China than any of the 32 gold medals your country won at the last Olympics. The glory will be all yours.