Chinese sporting royalty Li Na may now be reveling in her position as Asia’s most successful tennis player, but it took 15 years for her to begin enjoying the sport, she revealed yesterday.
Speaking exclusively to beijingkids on a visit to the International School of Beijing (ISB), Li admitted that tennis was “not my choice” and that her pursuit of sporting success was “for my family.”
The world’s third-ranked player went on to question the “tough” training methods used in the Chinese coaching system during her youth. While a strict sporting upbringing may be responsible for her unprecedented achievements, she advocated a softer approach to the youth game.
"When I was young the coach was tough. She was very nice, but the way she trained was tough,” she explained. “Right now [China] has many tennis academies that bring in a lot of Western culture [and]learn a lot from the West.
“Children have a good time when they’re starting their tennis because if you’re doing well, the coach gives you some positive [encouragement]. For us it was always negative which made me a little bit sad when I was growing up.”
With the trajectory of her early career directed by the wishes of her late father, Li’s newly-translated autobiography My Life also details the unrelenting criticism of her coach Yu Liqiao, who instilled a seemingly pervasive sense of self-doubt. While she now believes tennis to be “an amazing sport”, the star’s successes have not convinced her of the benefits of the “tiger” parent approach.
"Everyone’s different and if one day I’m a mom then for sure I’ll let my children choose [what]they prefer. When I grew up I hated that feeling so I don’t want to give that back to my children.
“The champion is not the winner,” she told us. “You need to be for yourself. It’s not like when I was young and [I had to] follow what my family said."
Quietly fearsome on court, the softly-spoken and unassuming Grand Slam winner was also keen to underplay her importance to the game in China.
“People always say ‘oh Li Na, Li Na’ but you know in China there are 5 million Li Nas. So which one do you want to be?” she said.
After speaking with beijingkids and meeting with young players at ISB’s pollution-free tennis dome, Li addressed around 400 members of the school community in a Q&A with three aspiring young student journalists. She spoke about the support she offers to seven Shunyi orphans and urged the school’s young tennis players to build a positive and communicative relationship with their coaches.
My Life was published December 1 by Viking, a Penguin Group imprint.
beijingkids was granted an exclusive interview with Li Na alongside sister publication The Beijinger. Read her views on the state of Chinese tennis and the upcoming Australian Open here.