Li Na made history as the first Asian-born tennis player to win not just one but two Grand Slam titles " but since retiring five years ago, what has the Chinese champion been plotting next?
You can take the girl out of the game but you can't take the game out of the girl. Even though it's been five years since mainland Chinese star Li Na retired from the world of competitive tennis, the sport is still very much at the forefront of her mind.
The 37-year-old is almost unrecognisable as she walks into the Rolex Lounge at the 2019 Rolex Shanghai Masters in the Qizhong Forest Sports City Arena. Wielding a shy smile rather than a tennis racket, the slender figure in a brown trouser suit is engulfed by fans clamouring for a selfie with China's " if not Asia's " greatest tennis player of our time.
As we sit down for a chat later, it's obvious this new Li Na is about as different as you can get from the dominating figure returning serves of up to 200km/h in Grand Slams all over the world. There's no hint of the on-court ferocious drive she showed the world on her way to becoming the first Asian-born person to win not just one but two Grand Slam titles: the French Open in 2011 and the Australian Open in 2014.
I like working with kids, which is why I'm not aiming to become a professional coach, like everyone expects former players to beLi Na
Relaxed, smiling, soft-spoken, Li is evidently enjoying retirement and raising a family " her daughter Alisa is four and her son Sapajou is three " with her husband and former coach and sparring partner Dennis Jiang Shan. Family is number one for her these days, but tennis is not trailing far behind either.
Besides getting an MBA from the Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business in Beijing, where the Wuhan native now lives, Li has spent the past few years trying to set up the Li Na Academy, a tennis school which she hopes will be a "playground for people who love tennis to be happy and play the sport".
"When I started playing tennis, I didn't have such a place and that's why I hope to start one for young players," she says. She had initially thought the place would be up and running by now, but has encountered difficulty in finding a suitable place for the school. "I will definitely see it through, but now I think it will take a little longer."
The desire to work with China's youth to help them achieve their tennis dreams is not surprising, given that her success on the Grand Slam and WTA courts has seen tennis grow from a relatively unknown sport in mainland China to one that is played by more the 14 million people. It's also why she has been working with Rolex to promote the Road to Wimbledon, a series of tournaments around the globe where the individual winners from each country get to play in the finals at the All England Club.
"I like working with kids, which is why I'm not aiming to become a professional coach, like everyone expects former players to be," says Li, who pulls in more money from endorsement deals now than when she was on the pro circuit. This year she became the first Asian-born player to be inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
Motherhood is a giving her a great training platform for her plans to work with young players, even though she finds it more challenging than facing down the likes of Serena Williams and Francesca Schiavone.
"As a professional player, I only had to make sure I did my part well and the team would take care of everything else. Children won't listen to you or behave the way you want them to. They have their own thinking," she says with a laugh.
"Nobody knows instinctively how to be a good parent. I feel that parents and children actually grow up together. Just because you're an adult doesn't mean you're right all the time."
Still, she is adamant she will not be following in the footsteps of Kim Clijsters, who recently announced her comeback, even though there are things she misses about her previous competitive life.
"I miss challenging myself on the courts. In real life, when things get too tough, you can choose to walk away. On the courts you cannot do that. No matter who your opponent is, the person you have to fight is yourself.
"But one thing I don't miss is waking up in the mornings and not knowing where you are because you spend the week travelling and changing hotels," says Li, who now tries to avoid travel for long periods if her family cannot be with her.
Coming next year is a film of her life story, adapted from her autobiography Li Na: My Life and made by award-winning Hong Kong director Peter Chan Ho-sun, who also recently directed her in a commercial for Mastercard.
The commercial shows her in a touching scene where she imagines meeting her late father " who died suddenly when she was 14, and whom she didn't get to say goodbye to " and hearing his approval for all her achievements. Her "performance" won praise from pundits and her 23 million Weibo followers.
"That wasn't really acting; it was my own story. Peter just moved me to a different setting and let me be myself. I would go crazy if you asked me to go into acting as a profession," she laughs, brushing aside any idea of a future on the big screen.
For now, she's quite happy to be spending her days getting her daughter ready for school, doing housework and looking after her son. Li's future is firmly entrenched in the next generation " hers and the nation's.
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Copyright (c) 2019. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.Artikel Asli