BEIJING, China -- Li Na bid farewell to the WTA Tour in her official retirement ceremony at the China Open on Tuesday night. In contrast to last week's farewell in her hometown of Wuhan, Li said goodbye to her fans and friends in an emotional ceremony that left her and many involved in tears. Li, the first Chinese player to win a Grand Slam singles title, announced her retirement less than two weeks ago via social media, and was joined on the Diamond Court at China's National Tennis Center by her fellow players to be recognized for a 16-year career that single-handedly changed the sport.
The 15,000 seat stadium was nearly full as Li walked out on court with little more than a spotlight and flashlights and phones from the crowd lighting the way. Montage upon montage summarized her career both on court and off, with shouts of "Li Na, We Love You" and "Li Na! Come on!" breaking up the reverent silence. After opening remarks from Chinese dignitaries, WTA CEO and chairwoman Stacy Allaster held off the tears as she said goodbye on behalf of the organization. "You are the player of this decade who has made the most impact and growth on women's tennis," she said. "And I know for certain your legacy and your contributions to the WTA will last for decade not only in China, but around the Asia Pacific."
The player turnout for the ceremony was remarkable. Some, like Caroline Wozniacki, went home after practicing on site to change and return specifically to share in the moment. Ana Ivanovic, who won her second round match just 20 minutes before the ceremony, did an abbreviated cool-down before racing to join the group to walk on court. Li was in good spirits as she waited patiently off court for her introduction. Dressed in a black pantsuit, she opted at the last minute to ditch a pair of four-inch stilettos for some practical flats. She shared a hug with Andrea Petkovic before revealing a pocket full of tissue in the event of waterworks. As it turned out, she needed them.
The tears came in earnest when Li's good friend Petra Kvitova took the microphone to give a farewell speech on behalf of the players. Kvitova, who won Li's hometown tournament at the Wuhan Open last week, struggled to hide her emotions. The two have reached the pinnacle of their careers together. Both have been ranked as high as No. 2., both won their maiden Slams in 2011, and both repeated the feats in 2014. A 24-year-old from Fulnek, Czech Republic, and a 32-year-old reluctant superstar from Wuhan, China, made for an odd couple, but their down to earth personalities and self-deprecating senses of humor allowed them to form an easy bond over the years. "You have done so much for women's tennis," said Kvitova. "Your story is full of inspiration. Being the first Asian to win a Grand Slam title changed our sport forever...The most important thing I want to say tonight: Thank you for being our opponent. Thank you for being our inspiration. Thank you for being our friend. We will miss you, Champ."
Serena Williams was stuck warming up for her night match and lamented the fact she couldn't attend the ceremony. "She's done so much for over a billion people," Serena said after her second round win. "I don't think I have impacted that many people. I just think what she's done for our sport, the sport I play in, is really second to none."
Li was eventually joined on court by her husband, Jiang Shan, and Rafael Nadal, who presented her with a bouquet of flowers. On the same day it was announced that Li was named an ambassador for the WTA Finals in Singapore, Li reminded everyone that she'll still be around, just simply replacing her Dri-Fit for business casual. "I'm really so happy I could be on the tennis tour," Li said, addressing her colleagues on court. "To know all of you as a friend. It's very tough to say goodbye. But I promise I can be around on the tour -- if not be an athlete on the tour -- but it's [to] come see all of you."
Watch Li Na's full retirement ceremony here.