“I was, like, ‘Please, double-fault. That way I can win the match,’” Li Na said after the semi-final of the 2011 French Open. Her opponent Maria Sharapova did just that and 29-year-old Li was into the final in Paris where she would face the holder Francesca Schiavone. It was indicative of the honesty that Li exhibited on and off court. She always spoke out and did her things her way, possibly a nod to Wuhan’s punk sensibility – her hometown is the capital of China’s punk music scene. Li had been allowed to go it alone under the “Flying Solo” programme in 2008. She would no longer have to play for and pay the state sports system, who had until then taken 65 per cent of her winnings. The new arrangement allowed for Li to pay just 8 per cent of her earnings. She quickly spread her wings. In 2009 she finished inside the world top 20. In 2010 she breached the top 10 and in January 2011 at the Australian Open Li came back from match point down to world No 1 and top seed Caroline Wozniacki to reach her first grand slam final. Li faced No 3 seed Kim Clijsters at Melbourne Park and took the first set before the Belgian came back to leave the dream of a Chinese grand slam winner still a dream. At the next slam in Paris, Li showed the same spirit – and a little luck – to edge past Sharapova in the semis, 6-4, 7-5. She had also edged a tiebreak in the quarters in the first set against fourth seed Victoria Azarenka before winning the second 6-2. A second slam final in a row had grown Li’s reputation on the tour and back home. It is reported that 116 million people tuned in to watch the action from Roland-Garros on what was Saturday evening in China. The No 6 seed Li burst into life in the final. She took the first set 6-4 and would soon be 4-2 up against the holder, who had beaten home hope Marion Bartoli in straight sets in the semis. Schiavone rallied to bring the second set level to 6-6. She had taken a second set tiebreak in the 2010 final to beat Samantha Stosur but Li had other plans. The Italian did not get a look-in, with Li winning the tiebreak 7-0 to take the French Open final 6-4, 7-6. “At 6-0 in the tiebreak, I was thinking ‘OK, don’t do anything stupid’,” Li said after the win. “Because many times I have had match point and not won the match. When I was a young player, I wanted to be a grand slam champion and now I am. Someone said the other day that I’m getting old, so the old woman’s dream has come true,” she said in trademark fashion. “A performance full of maturity, class and guts and when the pressure came late in the second set, she held firm,” was how The Guardian described it in their match report. “If this does not spark a new wave of Chinese players in the years to come then probably nothing will,” they added. Li was not so sure. “If I don’t do well at Wimbledon maybe people will forget me already,” she joked on-court. “But if a Chinese player can win a grand slam maybe it proves a lot for Chinese tennis. I believe Chinese tennis will get bigger and bigger.” In lifting La Coupe Suzanne Lenglen, she became China’s – and Asia’s – first grand slam singles winner. She became the poster girl of Chinese tennis and was paid handsomely by sponsors such as Rolex, Mercedes and Nike. The pressure must have been immense. That may have contributed to a disappointing 2012, where Li did not trouble the semis, as did changing coach. That year she started working with Justine Henin’s former coach, Carlos Rodriguez. It was Rodriguez that she told the following June that she wanted to quit. She had come close to quitting tennis before (and would come close once again). In fact she had already walked away, aged 20, when she went to university to study journalism. “Freedom was delicious,” Li wrote in her autobiography. She would return to tennis and the WTA Tour in 2004, the same year she would win her first WTA tournament at the Guangzhou Open. She was talked out of walking away by Rodriguez in those weeks before Wimbledon. Li was world No 3 by the end of the year on the back of a quarters appearance at the All-England Club, semis at Flushing Meadows and the final of the WTA Championships to end the 2013 season. The following season Li would prove that she was no “one slam wonder”, although there was a fine margin in the third round against Lucie Safarova. Li was down 1-6, 5-6 and serving to save match point. Safarova’s backhand was ruled long and Li rallied to win. “I think five centimetres saved my tournament,” she said after. Li did not drop another set that year, culminating in victory over Dominika Cibulkova in the final. Her husband Jiang Shan had been a constant by her side in all of this. The pair met at tennis school and ignored the rules forbidding relationships, both going to college at the same time before Jiang joined her on tour. He was often the butt of Li’s humour – his snoring became public knowledge at Melbourne Park in 2011 when Li threatened him with having to sleep in the bath. Slam or superstar – what’s next for Chinese tennis? He stayed even after he was sacked as her coach to be replaced by Michael Mortensen before the 2011 French Open win that would catapult her to stardom. Jiang was demoted to what The Daily Telegraph described as “hitting-partner and cheerleader-in-chief” in their French Open final preview, after Li had struggled for form since the loss to Clijsters in Melbourne. That all changed in Paris, though Li did struggle against Petra Kvitova in the fourth round, staring at defeat at 0-3 down in the third. “Maybe it was because my husband left that I was able to win six games in a row,” Li joked after the game of Jiang leaving the stands. This impishness was a constant in Li’s career, like when she thanked her agent after winning in Melbourne in 2014 – “Make me rich. Thanks a lot”. Even then she saved the best for Jiang. “Thanks for him [to] give up everything, just travelling with me to be my hitting partner, fix the drinks and fix the rackets. So thanks a lot. You’re a nice guy. And also you are so lucky to find me.” Chinese tennis was lucky to find Li, too. Though they did not get to enjoy her for much longer. On September 19, 2014 barely eight months since her career-defining second slam win and becoming a career-high world No 2, she walked away from tennis for the final time, unable to shake off a series of injuries. Where is the new Li Na? China’s tennis legend asks the question Li was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame last year and her legacy lives on in the number of Chinese tennis tournaments and nurturing the starts of the future . She remains as outspoken. While no Chinese player has followed up her singles slam, Naomi Osaka of Japan has won two. Li presented the Japanese star with the most recent of them, the 2019 Australian Open. Still one of China’s most recognisable celebrities, Li starred alongside Jiang in the reality television show Viva La Romance last November. She will make her big screen debut later this year when her life story hits cinemas.