Heroine honours fans

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 30 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 30 August, 2011, 12:00am


Wuhan's favourite daughter, Li Na, is preparing to honour her loyal home fans with a two-day tennis extravaganza.

She has invited other international stars, including United States legend Pete Sampras, the winner of 14 grand slam singles titles, to play a two-day tournament in the city in December to thank the thousands of Wuhan citizens who have supported her illustrious career.

The ace put the city on the sporting map after winning China's first grand slam title at the French Open in June.

The city government saluted her as a pioneer for the Wuhanese people and rewarded the 29-year-old with a 600,000 yuan (US$92,000) cheque. 'I truly feel that my success belongs not to myself but to the country,' says Li, who pocketed US$1.65 million in prize money for her victory at Roland Garros, where she defeated Italy's defending champion Francesca Schiavone for the title.

'Without the support from the government, the people and all my coaches, I would not have done this,' she says about the win, which helped her reach a career-high world No4 ranking.

The Hubei heroine says she knows where her heart lies.

After returning to the mainland following her landmark victory, she announced her intention to take a six-week break from tennis - at home. 'I will go nowhere. I want to stay at home [in Wuhan] with my family,' she says.

Li was born in Wuhan in 1982, and soon copied her professional badminton player father Li Shengpeng, and took up racquet sports when aged six.

Two years later, and spurred on by her father and a coach at Wuhan Youth Tennis Club, Xia Xiyao, she swapped disciplines and racquets, and switched to tennis.

After Li Shengpeng died when Na was just 14, she vowed to continue in her father's footsteps and become a professional player.

It was the right career move. In 1997, she was recruited by the Chinese national team and turned professional two years later.

But Li Na, academically bright and shining in the classroom, and dazzling on the court, had another calling - journalism.

Independently minded, she rejected the strict and demanding national team training regime and went to study part-time at Huazhong University of Science and Technology.

She quit the national tennis programme in 2008 and went solo under a new scheme called Fly Alone, which lets players choose what tournaments to enter, their own coaches and where and how they will train. It also allows players to keep most of their prize money instead of handing it over to government coffers, and to take on commercial sponsorships.

Her strong-willed character saw her take full advantage of the scheme and she upset government sports bosses by installing her former teammate and future husband, Jiang Shan, as her coach.

She also chose her own support staff which has helped raise the level of Chinese professional tennis.

Seen as a maverick by many young Chinese, who dub her 'China's No1 sister', Li is celebrated as much for her individuality as she is for her blistering tennis.

Following her grand slam triumph, when she returned to the mainland, she told the South China Morning Post that when she retires, she will set up her own tennis schools to help nurture Chinese tennis stars of the future. 'I want to give something back to those who have helped me,' she says.