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Hall of Fame 2019 — Li Na transcends tennis

Matt Zemek

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Greg M. Cooper -- USA TODAY Sports

To be sure, Li Na played transcendent tennis when she reached her highest level.

The greatest Chinese tennis player of all time performed brilliantly in the 2011 Roland Garros final against Francesca Schiavone. Li won a terrific match to make history and become China’s first major singles tennis champion.

Watching Li Na when she was “on” represented an electric tennis experience, supremely entertaining and filled with no shortage of high-voltage shotmaking. She was fun and — moreover — very successful.

So many players can play well in short bursts — hello, Camila Giorgi — but cannot sustain quality over multi-match sequences or in whole tournaments. Li crossed that fundamental barrier, which in itself elevates her to a higher place in the tennis pantheon.

That she won two major titles on separate surfaces adds to her credentials as a member of the International Tennis Hall of Fame, which she entered this past Saturday in Newport, Rhode Island:

The history of tennis owns so many distinct figures, which we have written about at Tennis With An Accent.

Billie Jean King might be the foremost trailblazer women’s tennis has ever known. Her contributions to the sport reach so much deeper and farther than her on-court victories.

One could say that Li Na has been the foremost trailblazer for women’s tennis in China and Asia. If one was to say that, the claim would certainly be reasonable. That simple but weighty claim represents a towering and substantial legacy, an enormous contribution to tennis. One could end the conversation there and say that as an athlete and a global ambassador, Li Na has done so much to enrich her sport. That would not be an overstatement of her impact on tennis.

Yet, as large as her contributions are as mentioned above, they do not represent the full story of what Li Na has given to tennis and to the world.

Li Na transcends tennis — not just in her achievements, not just in expanding the tennis marketplace and creating a new sense of what is possible for Chinese players to accomplish, but in terms of how to look at life.

Li Na, a Hall of Fame tennis player, is an extraordinary life coach.

Stop for a moment and read pieces such as this one. Absorb the many obstacles Li Na had to overcome, and the many frustrations she had to absorb, in the process of becoming the tennis player she ultimately became. Being a part of China’s state sports system — cold, harsh, unforgiving, demanding, not very emotionally spacious, culturally rigid, and highly constraining in relationship to a lifestyle and life choices — is no way for any young person to grow up.

Cast aside the larger process of becoming an athlete in general or a tennis player in particular; Li Na faced gigantic barriers on the road to becoming a whole and healthy human being, secure in her emotions and comfortable with her own identity. I can’t relate to what Li Na went through. Many people in the West can’t. Many people in the world can’t.

And yet… Li Na not only achieved richly on the court; she became that full and whole person. She became a ray of sunshine, happy with the person she was and is, blessed with a delicious sense of humor and an ample supply of honesty, not taking herself too seriously.

Li Na certainly shows that tennis players and athletes can only control certain things. They can’t control everything.

The reality that tennis players can’t prevent adverse circumstances from emerging, but that they CAN control how they respond to adversity, is a core tennis lesson. Using emotions to serve essential goals and needs, and not using emotions to sink into a dark pit of negativity, distraction and self-loathing, are central aspects of the challenge of being a tennis player.

Li Na certainly was a great tennis teacher when viewed through that lens.

Yet, Li Na’s story is most centrally a story of overcoming repression and conformist teaching and cultural programming. We can see and acknowledge her success as a tennis player, yet note that her greatest victory is most essentially a HUMAN one.

Li Na’s message IS a tennis message… but let’s not limit it to tennis. More than just a tennis message, Li Na’s example of being your own person in your own way, no matter what authority structures or cultural institutions say, is a LIFE message.

I am sure that Li Na has enabled a lot of people — not just in China, but everywhere — to be more comfortable in their own skin DESPITE crushing stress, overwhelming burdens, and paralyzing family conflicts.

That is her truest and highest Hall of Fame-level legacy, beyond the considerable contributions she made solely through the act of hitting a tennis ball really well.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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