Tennis: Li says tennis 'only chance' after father's death

Tennis: Li says tennis 'only chance' after father's death

WUHAN, China - China's Li Na said her ground-breaking career can be traced back to the death of her father when she was 14, a pivotal moment which meant tennis success was her "only chance".

Li, in candid comments following her shock retirement last week, said she had to grow up quickly when left to support her mother, a realisation which shaped her life.

"I think I was a pretty normal girl in the way I grew up (but) what totally changed my life was when my father passed away," she told AFP in an interview in Wuhan.

It sowed the seeds of a career which yielded two Grand Slam singles titles, the first for an Asian player, and brought tennis to China's masses.

The reigning Australian Open champion was speaking to AFP in her home city, days after she tearfully called it quits over persistent knee injuries.

Li, 32, made special mention of her father in her retirement statement last week, saying: "You've remained the sunshine in my life and I am who I am because of you."

Late in her career, it was another fatherly figure in the form of coach Carlos Rodriguez who would prove influential as he brought Li out of a slump to win the Australian Open in January.

Under the Argentinian, Justine Henin's former mentor, Li became a different, composed more player - and less confrontational off the court.

"He said, "You are a good player, or a great champion," Li said.

"I was like, 'It is the same. Why?' And he said, 'No, it is not the same. A champion has to be like everywhere a champion, not only on court.'"

But Li said her split with Rodriguez in July, because he wanted to focus on his work at a Beijing tennis academy, did not influence her decision to retire.

Her family had struggled financially after her father, Li Shengpeng, died of a rare cardiovascular disease when she was taking her first steps on the tennis circuit.

But with the determination that would mark her ascent to world number two, the young Li focused on the tennis court to navigate the family out of hardship.

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