Li Na is a name that evokes a nostalgic sense of respect and admiration for tennis fans all over the world. Here are three notable achievements that make her the most prominent player in Asian tennis history:
ITF Circuit achievements
Li Na’s first three years of playing professional tennis were as good as it gets as far as blasting on the scene goes. Entering the ITF Circuit in 1999, she amassed a total of 14 singles titles and 15 doubles titles by 2002, establishing herself as one of the best female tennis players on Tour. Already, Li had become a household icon in China, with many of her tournaments won on home soil.
It was around this time that the up-and-coming Chinese national had decided to take time off from tennis. Her decision was likely due to her study pursuits at Huazhong University where she eventually graduated with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Nevertheless, Li would return to professional tennis in 2004 under China’s newly formed “Fly Solo” policy, where she was given more freedom as an individual tennis player and was allowed to keep most of her prize money.
Upon her return as an unranked player, Li won 26 consecutive matches and increased her singles title count to 18 and doubles title count to 16. In what was her most successful year of tennis at the time, Li broke into the Top 100 for the first time for a career-high WTA ranking of 80. She also secured her first WTA Tour title in her home country, winning the event at Guangzhou International and solidifying 2004 as the most accomplished year of her tennis career thus far.
First Asian Grand Slam singles champion
Determined to focus solely on the WTA Tour, Li had entered the Gold Coast Open in 2005 where she exited in her second-round match. She would then attempt another tournament in Oceania at the Hobart International, where she lost to fellow Chinese player Zheng Jie. Li tasted her first Grand Slam that year at the Australian Open, where she made it to the third round only to be dominated without so much as a third set against Maria Sharapova, sparking what would later become an incredible rivalry.
Li Na would continue to make Grand Slam appearances from that moment forward with increasingly better results. At the 2006 Wimbledon Grand Slam singles event, she became the first tennis player from China to reach the quarterfinal of a major and secure a career-high ranking of No.20. In the same year, Li would also go on to reach the fourth round of the US Open, where she was once again defeated by eventual champion Maria Sharapova for the fourth time in a row.
The next few years saw Li Na reach several quarters and semifinal matches of numerous minor and major tournaments, securing her fourth WTA title at the Medibank International Sydney. 2011 marked a major breakthrough in Li’s career, this time reaching her first Grand Slam final and becoming the first player from China to do so. She was bested by Kim Clijsters in what was their second match of the year, receiving her first Grand Slam runner-up plate.
Li’s performance at the Australian Open likely gave rise to a great deal of confidence and relentless form that would carry over throughout the year. At the French Open of 2011, Li put on a stunning performance from the first round all the way through to the finals. En route, she had defeated Petra Kvitova, Victoria Azarenka, and then Maria Sharapova in the semifinals, making it her first win over the Russian in a Grand Slam match.
The 2011 Roland Garros final featured a showdown between defending champion Francesca Schiavone from Italy and Australian Open runner-up Li Na from China. After a tight first set going Li’s way and an even tighter second set tiebreak also going her way, the talented Chinese tennis player won her maiden Grand Slam title. Li had made sport’s history by becoming the first Asian-representative tennis player, male or female, to win a tennis Grand Slam title.
Li was not finished pursuing Grand Slam glory just yet, reaching yet another Australian Open final in 2013 where she faced former world No.1 Victoria Azarenka. In a close three-set match, Li once again fell short of the title, settling for another Australian Open runner-up prize. Finishing the year ranked world No.3, Li had reached a career-high despite sustaining a series of injuries throughout the season.
Before retiring in 2014, Li gave the Australian Open one last shot. In her most dominant Grand Slam performance thus far, the former French Open champion cruised past the likes of Ekaterina Makarova, Flavia Pennetta, and Eugenie Bouchard to set up a final against 20th seed Dominika Cibulkova. In a similar fashion to most of her matches, Li Na won in straight sets 7-6 6-0 to secure her second Grand Slam title while becoming the first Asian Australian Open champion in history.
International Tennis Hall of Fame
There is no doubt that Li is the most recognized and respected tennis player in China. Her success on the ITF Circuit alone was enough to spread her name across the nation like wildfire, and the Chinese media were having an absolute field day, to say the least. Not only did Time Magazine place her on the list of Top 100 Most Influential People in the World for the year 2013, but she also featured on the front cover. More incredibly still is that the two-time Grand Slam champion was just one of four sportspeople to be featured on the list, gravitating her achievements beyond tennis alone.
In 2014, Li Na was featured on Time Magazine’s cover once again, accompanied by the article titled “The Passion of Li Na,” where she is described as a global sports idol that has inspired millions of Chinese people to pursue freedom of thought and independent character. Alongside Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova, Li Na was among the trio as the only three female athletes featured on Forbes Celebrity 100 List.
Above all else, Li Na received the greatest honor in the sport in 2019 when she was conducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. She now embraces retirement from the sport, with her name resting among many other legends who have received this honor such as Margaret Court, Billie Jean King, and Steffi Graff, to name a few. Li’s feats have paved the way for Asian female tennis players everywhere, and her achievement of the highest award in tennis is testimony to her deserving recognition of giving immense exposure to the sport and bringing tennis to life in the East Asian regions of the world.