Tennis: Li a rebel who stands out for her conviction

Retired Chinese tennis star Li Na, still a favourite off court, taking selfies with fans at the OCBC Arena before a WTA Rising Stars match.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

There is a Chinese proverb, which, loosely translated, says the bird that sticks its head out first will be the first to get shot. It warns that there is no reward in non-conformity, that one is better off playing it safe.

Throughout her tennis career, Li Na never heeded that proverb and has never played it safe.

By the time the 33-year-old hung up her racket for good a year ago, she had achieved countless firsts and two Grand Slam titles.

Long-time sponsor Nike congratulated her on her success with this message:

If you are going to be anything, be that bird.

"I'm quite an unyielding person," Li, in Singapore as the WTA Future Stars Ambassador, told The Sunday Times yesterday.

"When I make a decision to pursue something, I rarely waver. I usually press on."

It is perhaps this relentless nature, the refreshing individuality of someone from a country where athletes are produced in a cookie-cutter environment, that has endeared Li to many.

She fell in love with her mixed doubles partner and now husband Jiang Shan, a romance that led the state-run sports academy to end their partnership on court.

Li packed her bags shortly after, left tennis and spent some years studying journalism.

She had a tattoo inked on her chest - a rose and heart to symbolise her love for Jiang - and also made a risky decision in 2008 to leave the state system so she could take her career into her own hands.

If she is seen as a rebel, it is not for the sake of violating rules, but because she is driven by conviction. If her courage has impressed, then her wit and candour have also charmed millions.

She said: "I've always felt that if you're not frank about something, you end up telling another 100 lies around it. It's tiresome."

"Maybe it's because I'm not intelligent so I don't think so much," Li added, her self-deprecating humour once again finding its way into an interview.

"I just prefer to say what's on my mind and communicate what I think or feel as it is."

Whether it was breaking the stereotype of the reserved Asian through jokes at victory speeches, or breaking the mould of the docile wife by poking fun at her husband, Li always surprised, and her popularity endures.

It meant that this interview, conducted over a few minutes on a bumpy buggy ride in the Singapore Sports Hub, was sure to be interrupted.

Fans called out for her attention, while familiar faces from her extended WTA family waved as if they were reunited with kin.

Yet Li never started out thinking she would go on to be the most decorated or highest-ranked Asian tennis player of all time, much less assume the role of torch-bearer, as she has in recent years.

She was simply a pudgy girl-next-door from the city of Wuhan, sent to the courts by her father to lose some weight, she joked.

In her autobiography My Life, she wrote at length about the demons she spent much of her career wrestling with. Before she found her breakthrough, she was convinced she was nothing more than a second-rate player.

Still, even while she lacked the initial belief, Li said she always had ambition: "If you don't dream it, you won't invest in it, sacrifice for it, or work hard towards it.

"Before you've achieved something, people might call it ambition. But when you've done it, it becomes direction and motivation for you."

Li welcomed her first-born, daughter Alisa, four months ago. She now plays an ambassadorial role for the WTA.

As she conducted the coin toss yesterday at the OCBC Arena for a WTA Rising Stars Invitational match, Li was asked what advice she would offer the young starlets if she were to think back to a similar stage of her career about a decade ago.

Her answer: "Try your best. Work hard. You can be a hero for yourself."

Or in Li's case, a phoenix that stands out.

This article was first published on October 25, 2015. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to for more stories.