LI NA – WHEN SHE SMILES, EVERYONE MELTS

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Out of a land of 1.8 billion, one girl emerged to change to the landscape. (Feng Li/Getty Images)

“Women hold up half the sky.” – Mao Tse-Tung

Bill Simons

To my eye, Li Na looks like Buddha. But she is one Buddha who has wit, is vulnerable and who bristles. Li Na should forever be blessed for giving us the most hilarious moment in a very familiar routine – the tennis awards ceremony – that can be rather predictable and overly serious.

After winning the 2014 Aussie Open, Li was offering the standard kudos when she informed us, “My, agent, make me rich. Thanks…Husband – hitting partner, fixes drinks, carries rackets, he’s a nice guy. And, lucky too, to have me.”

When, as a child, her parents told her to stop focusing on badminton in order to play tennis, she said, “Why didn’t anyone ask me?” Then, in 2008, when she grew tired of the Chinese Tennis Federation – who never praised her, always told her where to play, and kept 65% of her winnings – she told them to shove it and decided to do it her own way. She did the unthinkable and bolted from their domineering control and played the game for herself.

Now one of the most funny, influential and appealing players in tennis history has been named to the game’s Hall of Fame. And why not? She was the first Chinese player to win a Slam. She won nine WTA titles that included two majors, reached No. 2 in the world and was a powerful force.

But a Chinese proverb tells us that “a spectator sees more than a player in the heat of a game.” Most fans have delighted in the wit of the most hilarious woman player ever. She once confided that she had troubles on court because her much-maligned husband, Jiang Shan, snores too much. When she was later asked why she plays the game, she simply said, “Money.” (BTW: She’s now worth more than $50 million.) At the US Open, she claimed that in China it’s said, “If you love your children, send them to New York. If you hate somebody, send them to New York.”

More than this, noted Simon Barnes, “Na’s career has been a contest between authority and independence: between people telling her who to be and her own views… She has conformed only to herself… She is not a rebel for the love of rebellion, but someone who believes that being true to yourself is a higher duty than fitting in. All this… alters our understanding of the world. [She is] showing Chinese people something of the ways of the West and the value that is placed on individuality and allowing us in the West to see a Chinese woman…whose brilliance is the clear expression of her personality.”

But Na was burdened by doubts. She confided, “I’m a product of the Chinese style of education, which has led me to hesitate before making any decisions, to lack confidence, to not dare to speak and to constantly calculate…What I hate most is my lack of self-confidence when playing.” Her vastly popular win at the 2011 French Open was a temporary breakthrough. “It brought me peace of mind…I didn’t need to cover my face with a towel or hide in the…bathroom while I wept. I would no longer need to help myself after every little mistake. I would not have to continue torturing myself. I knew that my performance was passable. My internal referee let me off the hook for once. ‘Li Na, this time you’ve done all right,’ I said quietly to myself.”

The player we celebrated as a charming Chinese flower was not only harsh on herself, she was critical of her sport. “Tennis,” she asserted, “is a lonely sport. You can’t experience the sense of belonging that comes from having…teammates. Everyone’s watching you, so when you get bogged down, you can only crawl along under their watchful eyes…This sort of lingering solitude, combined with waves of overwhelming pressure, is enough to really drive a person mad.”

The world saw Na as delightful, but clearly she had demons. “Every person has a caged beast in their heart,” she contended. “It’s aggressive, irritable, violent, scarred and brutal beyond comparison. It was my habit to open the cage during a match and let the beast out…When I was mentally vulnerable, the beast would turn on me instead. It ridiculed me and humiliated me, making me constantly weep and blame others for my own mistakes.” But make no mistake about it, Na, now a mother of two, single-handedly transformed the landscape of an increasingly global game. In 2013 Time Magazine named her one of the 100 most influential people in the world. Similarly, Stacey Allaster, then the WTA CEO, noted that if the Williams sisters were the most influential women players of the previous decade, Li was probably the most influential player of the early 21st century.

After all, out of a land of 1.8 billion people, a country that over the past 75 years has navigated a tumultuous path through war, revolution, famine, cultural upheaval, and economic explosion, there emerged a single woman who would popularize the game in Asia and open hearts, captivating the imaginations of kids in Canton, Calcutta and California.

Want some stats? Fifteen million people now play tennis in China, and 120 million watched Li Na win the 2014 Aussie Open final. She has 20 million followers on China’s Twitter, and tennis tournaments are sprouting all over Asia. “She was such a breath of fresh air,” wrote Chris Evert. “And like Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova before her, Li Na has transcended her sport.”

As she marched to her Aussie title, her wit glistened. She joked her goal for the tournament was not to fall. When she was down match point in the third round and survived only because a potential winner by Lucie Safarova was just long, she quipped, “I think the five centimeters save my tournament. If she hit in…my whole team on the way to the airport.” Later, when asked whether she would send Safarova a present or a check if she won the Aussie Open, she quipped: “I’ll send smile.”

Time and again Li Na sent smiles to all of tennis. She was Asia’s answer to the beloved Kim Clijsters. In China, she had the kind of diva/goddess sizzle Serena enjoys. Of course, there were moments of rage, especially when the Chinese press were unrelenting. Despite her doubts and the pain of emerging from a closed system to be an open champion, she became a woman of rare joy who radiated delight and a sense of whimsy. Then again, Li is from a land that gave us this advice: “Have a mouth as sharp as a dagger, but a heart as soft as tofu.”

Ultimately this was a wise, brave woman with an inner delight which she shared freely on big stages. “At tournaments,“ noted Chris Evert, “I’ve seen her charm the crowds. When she smiles, everyone melts.” So we told her that it seems she likes to hear people laugh. She offered a knowing smile and said, “You know, why not? Everyone be happy for every day.”

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