Li Na's retirement a huge loss to the WTA and tennis
SI.com caught up with Sports Illustrated Executive Editor Jon Wertheim to discuss his reactions and thoughts about the announcement of Li Na's retirement.
How surprising is this announcement, given the rumors floating around for quite some time?
• Sadly, not. There have been rumors since her early loss at the French Open that her spirit was no longer in tennis. When her coach, Carlos Rodriguez -- whom Li Na has credited with energizing her career -- left in early July, it was clear this was a crisis. Mary Carillo deserves credit for reporting this retirement as fact, not rumor, during the U.S. Open. But, to your question, this possibility has been out there for months.
How big of a loss is this to tennis? To tennis in Asia? What legacy will Li Na leave behind?
• This is a huge loss, to the WTA and the sport in general. It’s no secret that Asia -- and China especially -- is the great emerging market. Here you had a Grand Slam champion, with a winsome personality, to boot. Here is a sports star who has more Twitter followers (on Chinese Twitter, Weibo) than LeBron James and Kevin Durant combined.
As for her legacy, her multiple major titles -- and the inevitable Hall of Fame induction that comes with it -- are top-line. But I would argue that her real legacy will be as a shatterer of stereotypes. She is a tattooed, beer-drinking feminist, who cracked nonstop jokes -- often at the expense of her husband -- and spoke with bracing candor about everything from her misgivings with the Chinese sports machine to her personal flaws. A friend recently remarked to me that “Li Na is the Billie Jean King of China.” I don’t think that’s an exaggeration.
What were your impressions of Li Na during your interview with her in the spring?
• She was funny and endearing and terrifically candid. Of course she was. But, with the benefit of hindsight, there was also a sense of fatigue. She spoke a lot about how she was looking forward to being a housewife and mother. She spoke about the mental exhaustion of playing tennis at the highest level. She spoke about the pressures she’s under in China and how she doesn’t let herself think in terms of the numbers.
Li Na split with coach Carlos Rodriguez in July and hasn't played in since. How much of an impact did the split have on her?
• I think the split was a symptom, not a cause. By then it was clear that her commitment level wasn’t there. And, while the split was amiable, Rodriguez has too many other projects and ambitions than to spend time with a player lacking in motivation.
How does Li Na go from winning her second career Grand Slam title at the Australian Open in January to less than 10 months later, calling it quits from the sport?
• That’s tennis. Motivation is essential and there’s no faking it when your rations are sparse. She wins a Grand Slam -- the Grand Slam of Asia/Pacific, no less. There’s elation. Then there’s inevitable letdown. Her body is dinged up a bit. She turns 32. She is happy in her personal life. Money is not a factor. Your career has surpassed all expectation. You say, “Remind me again: why am I making these sacrifices?”
Li Na walked away from tennis once before, in 2002 at the age of 20 to study journalism. Will this be another short-term hiatus or an authentic retirement?
• As for journalism, we eagerly look forward to her presence in the media room. Maybe she knows those elusive Wi-Fi codes. You raise a good point, though. Tennis rivals boxing in examples of “un-retirements.” Just this week, a player returned after almost half a decade on the sidelines. But it’s hard to have a 32-year-old walk away and go out to great fanfare as the WTA wends its way through Asia these next few months. And then reverse course. Say this: she will be deeply missed.