Tuesday September 23rd, 2014

WUHAN, China -- Some things don't change. Li Na is still clad from head to toe in Nike sportswear, with a Mercedes-Benz logo still emblazoned on her right sleeve -- a subtle reminder of her powerful global status that Nike would allow anything other than a swoosh on their gear.

Her homecoming at the Wuhan Open was a picture of chaos. Local reporters were camped out in the interview room hours before she was scheduled to arrive. Suddenly, at a tournament that had already been underway for days, additional security measures were being put in place from the moment her visit was confirmed. Photographers feigned ignorance as they repeatedly tried to sneak through security to access restricted areas where Li was meeting with tournament organizers and fellow players. She was ushered from room to room by no less than six bodyguards, barreling their way through corridors congested with journalists and volunteers clamoring for a glimpse of Wuhan's greatest export.

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Yet by the time she arrived to a tiny non-air conditioned office, she looked like she had just come back from a leisurely stroll. As she got mic'd up for a recorded interview, she regaled the room with a story from dinner the night before, when her agent bragged about being able to handle spicy food and then succumbed to the overwhelming fiery heat of a mild Wuhan dish. "I was like what are you talking about? There's not even chili in it! But was sweating so bad." Everyone in the room laughed. She simply flashed that mischievous smile we've seen so many times.

But some things do change. Her hair is longer -- eight extra inches fall below her shoulders since she fell to the terre battue at Roland Garros in 2011, when she became the first Chinese man or woman to ever win a Slam. It's a good four inches longer than when she raised her arms in triumph in January earlier this year, when she doubled her Slam total by winning the Australian Open. And it's undoubtedly longer than it was at Wimbledon, where she admitted to playing tentative after double-faulting on match point and losing to Barbora Zahlavova Strycova in the third round. Who knew that double-fault would be the final point of her career.

The tan lines on her wrists -- which seemed like permanent tattoos after years of ritualized taping -- have nearly faded. When Li was plucked out of her badminton lessons to play tennis, her coach first asked her if she liked being in the sun. She said yes. When she tried to play herself onto the team she was obsessed with the idea of beating one of the "bronzed players" to prove her worth. She finally became one of those bronzed athletes herself, and now after 24 years in the sun, the bronzing was already beginning to fade.

Li Na Nike shows off her tan lines during a Nike photo shoot in 2013.
Li Na Nike shows off her tan lines during a Nike photo shoot in 2013.
the-slice.com

"I'm very proud of myself," Li told reporters in Wuhan. "Actually, after writing that letter on the microblog, I realized that I have never taken little time to thank myself. Now, at the age of 32, I want to thank the Li Na at the age of 15, because it is because of the perseverance in my youthfulness that I have achieved my goals. So maybe today at the age of 32, Li Na is not as tough as, as strong as she was in the age of 15. But still, I want to thank myself."

Li was relaxed and self-assured as she talked through her decision to walk away from the game, and her eyes lit up when she spoke of her future. She wants to settle down with her husband, Jiang Shan, and have kids -- and thanks to a recent change in Chinese law that allows a married couple of only-children to have more than one child, more than one is possible. But she also wants to give back. There are ambitious plans to set up a tennis academy that includes an array of other commercial interests, from hotels and spas, and even bath products. There is philanthropy as well, spurred on by her role as an ambassador for Right To Play. Needless to say, she won't be the simple "housewife" she always dreamed of being.

Li sat down with SI.com's Courtney Nguyen in her hometown of Wuhan to talk about her career and her retirement, but also her future. What's next for Li Na?

SI.com: You said in Beijing that you have no regrets. I'm wondering though, are you at peace with your decision?

Li: You know, when I decided I was sad but also excited. Of course I was sad because tennis was with me for 24 years. It's very tough to say goodbye to your family. But because of my knee my body couldn't handle it anymore. But the excited part -- finally I can be with my friends, I can be with my family, I can take care of Dennis as well. For so many years he did so many things for me. I think it's time to turn.

SI.com: When you won your majors, especially at the Australian Open this year, you looked more relieved than happy. Like "Finally, I can relax, I got it." Do you feel a sense of relief now?

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Li: At least now when I wake up I don't have to worry about being on time or on schedule, which match I should play, what I should do. Now it's like "Oh! This is my home! I know this place!" [laughs] Also I think my mom is happy because now I can be with her. Australia is my favorite tournament. I really wish I could take the trophy over there. So after this year I was feeling 'Wow, you made it. You really made it.'

SI.com: You said that you didn't think this day would come after you won Australia. But then the knee started to flare up after Miami. Is it the same type of injury as your right knee?

Li: Yeah. It's the same injury but the left knee. Because in Miami it was already swollen. My physio Alex tried to fix it but it didn't work. At the time I was like "Why is it me again?" Because I had a very good beginning of the year. It wasn't like before when I win the big one and then was going down. But this year I was keeping going. So it was like "Why again?"

SI.com: Was there anything you still felt like you still needed to do?

Li: During the time I was really trying to catch Serena [and rise to No. 1]. Because I think it was a very good chance for myself. But after, I was thinking what can you prove to yourself doing more? I say I cannot. I did everything that I can. I do it as hard as I can. 

SI.com: What was the best advice you got from anyone as you contemplated your retirement?

Li: Of course I cannot decide in one second. I have to think about it a long time. Suddenly I was thinking even if you cannot stay healthy you cannot keep trying. Especially now, women's tennis is very tough. If you cannot keep healthy, keep fit, stand up on the court, always lose first round, you waste the time. Why I should do that? After I think about it for one month and I asked the doctor as well. And he said "Whatever you do, I will support you." And I talked to Dennis. But really, I was following my heart. I say I make the decision. I cannot play anymore. 

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SI.com: You said in your letter "I was never supposed to be here," and in your book you talk a lot about both the media criticism at home as well as learning to deal with your own internal demons. What was toughest for you, the criticism from the outside or your own doubts.

Li: I think especially in these couple of years, every year you would hear "Oh, Li Na would be retired. Oh, she cannot do it, she's already done." Excuse me? I'm still on the court! I don't think all the journalists are bad but a couple of them always trying to push me down. Even if I didn't say it they just write down what they want to write. I think this a little bit hurt me. I am only an athlete. I try to play my best tennis, why would you say that? So after that I said, I don't care. Because if I didn't love myself then nobody can love me. So I tried to start with myself and love myself and also try to understand myself. But it's very tough.

SI.com: Are you easier on yourself now?

Li: Now it's pretty easy! I think during the time playing tennis I cannot. During the time I was thinking "You have to do this, you have to do that." Now I say, relax.

SI.com: So the number two has been a big part of your career. Two majors, career-high ranking....

Li: You know what number two means in China?

SI.com: No.

Li: Stupid. [laughs]

SI.com: Well there you go. It's your number.

Li: Well we have to think about it in a positive way. [laughs]

SI.com: So future going forward, are you going for two kids? One kid?

Li: Yeah, I will try to have two kids and two dogs. [laughs] Just continue to be stupid. 

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