Serena Williams v Li Na? A tale of two mothers as one focuses on winning Wimbledon and the other on family
China’s 36-year-old pioneer is back at Wimbledon, happy in her life raising a family – and cooking but not cleaning
While Serena Williams was playing for a spot in the semi-finals at Wimbledon, another 36-year-old mother, Li Na, was content to relive old times a few courts away with other legends.
The most successful Asian ever was playing a friendly match on court 2 in a legends event with other retirees such as Ai Sugiyama and Tracy Austin.
Li said she did not regret her decision to retire in 2014, months after winning the Australian Open. While Williams has continued to dominate the tour, Li has focused on family in Beijing, where she is raising a three-year old girl, Alisa, and a one-year-old boy, Sapajou.
On Wimbledon grass for the first time in four years, her smile and “Joker Li” humour are the same. Li hit a whistling forehand passing shot and kicked up chalk dust with a few serves, but there were no signs she can repeat Williams’ feat of returning to pro tennis after childbirth.
When asked if she missed playing on the WTA tour, Li quickly replied: “Not really.”
“I miss the fighting competition. In normal life we don’t have that,” Li told the South China Morning Post.
“Now my life is much more relaxed. It’s not like being an athlete where you have to put attention on yourself every second. Now I can relax and care about the family. My husband [Jiang Shan] helps a lot. It’s much easier.”
This week, she is busy as a tour guide showing her family around London. She is not interested in being a coach or commentator. “Only taking care of the family,” she said with a smile. “I like cooking, but not cleaning.”
Li said it was difficult for women to have children and then rejoin the tour. “Especially for a woman, the body changes a lot. You have at least four or five months where you can’t sleep all night. The baby cries, and the woman always wakes up the next second.”
Having achieved her career goals, Li set out to build the family unit she lacked earlier in life.
Growing up in industrial Wuhan, she lost her father to a rare disease when she was only 14. With steely determination, she won more than US$16 million touring the world, plus much more from endorsements.
She burst onto the global sports scene in 2011 when, ranked No 11 in the world, she beat top-ranked Caroline Wozniacki to reach the final of the Australian Open. After winning the first set 6-3 then losing the next two sets to Kim Clijsters, Li joked that “tennis should only have one set”.
Fans in Australia and around the world quickly fell in love with “Joker Li”. Chinese fans and officials called her a pioneer of tennis across Asia and compared her to Olympic champion hurdler Liu Xiang and basketball star Yao Ming.
She won the French Open later that year, drawing comparisons to Chinese-American Michael Chang, who won at Roland Garros in 1989.
In Guangzhou in 2004, she became the first Chinese player to win a WTA tour title. She won seven titles on tour and reached the quarter-finals of Wimbledon.
Li’s popularity was underscored by the fanfare around her announcement at the 2015 Australian Open that she was pregnant. A photo in June 2015 with Jiang and newborn Alisa attracted more than 15,000 comments in a few hours on China’s Weibo.
Last year, Li said she wanted Chinese tennis to “grow up” and develop stars to take attention off her.
“Actually, I didn’t like [that] people always remember me,” she said last October in Wuhan, where she was treated like a rock star. “When I decided to retire, I was thinking the next day [of new Chinese winners] would come.”
Yet she remains positive. “I saw the three Chinese juniors play these past few days,” she said on a balcony overlooking court 14 at Wimbledon. “The way they hit the ball is so fast. I’m not strong like them.”
She said the younger players were also benefiting from the rise of tennis in China, a boom she helped to create.
“After the US Open, all the tournaments are in Asia and China. It’s very good for the players. You don’t need to have a long journey. You can stay in your country. You can play big tournaments, face to face with the top players. It’s very good.”