Thursday, October 23, 2014

Farewell, Li Na

The reason I really liked Li Na is the same reason I really liked Mary Pierce. I can't remember who she was playing (Conchita Martinez?) the year she won the French Open, but Pierce was serving, and the camera zoomed in on her. As part of her serve motion preparation, Pierce held the ball closer to her face as she surveyed her opponent, and her hand was shaking. That's it. That's why I liked her – because she showed that even as she was en route to doing something huge in her career, she was nervous. Just like I would be, or anyone else. You never saw the shakes in Li Na – not like that. It would show more in her game. She'd be using her deep groundstrokes to hold off Victoria Azarenka or Serena Williams, and then it was like she realized how close she was to winning, and then all the wheels would fall off. This isn't to minimize the greatness of her career, which she ended last month after enduring years of worsening knee problems. She is the first Asian ever to advance to a grand slam quarterfinal, and the first to win a Grand Slam. Li is known for her independent streak – she left the Chinese national team to gather her own training team. It wasn't popular then, but when you come home with a French and Australian Open trophy in your hand, that'll sway the public opinion pretty decisively. She finishes her career with more than $24 million in winnings and endorsement money and nine pro titles. This year, her last year, she won the Australian and became No. 2 in the world. But the show of humanity even as she pursued the heights of her career is what tends to move a fan base. Sure, Serena will go down as one of the greats of the game, but she never shows that humanity on court, that thing about her that makes you realize she's just like you on the court sometimes. And she doesn't have to – there's a place in history already for her, and for Pete Sampras. But when someone like Li Na retires, there tends to be a sentimental place, too. The other thing about Li and Pierce is that they did what they did long after they were supposed to have been able to do it. Maybe it's getting older, or having kids, but when you see Li Na snagging majors into her thirties, it becomes far more impressive in a personal way than, say, the Eugenie Bouchards of the world. Not that there's anything wrong with them. But the Bouchards are for the kids. The Lis are for the grown-ups.

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