After Blazing Trail, Li Na Exits and Leaves a Gap
Despite all of her evident athletic talent and all of her personal sacrifices, Li Na was a late bloomer in tennis, which is one reason — but only one reason — it feels as if she retired too soon.
In stepping away because of major knee problems at age 32 years 6 months, she lasted longer on tour than many of the best women's players of the modern era: longer than Monica Seles or Steffi Graf; longer than Amélie Mauresmo, Kim Clijsters or Justine Henin.
在32岁零6个月的时候，李娜宣布因膝伤退役。她已经比当代许多最优秀的女子网球选手坚持的时间更长了，比如莫妮卡·塞莱斯(Monica Seles)、施特菲·格拉芙(Steffi Graf)、阿梅莉·毛瑞斯莫(Amélie Mauresmo)、金姆·克里斯特尔斯(Kim Clijsters)和贾斯汀·海宁(Justine Henin)。
But Li had to wait to hit her peak, to shore up her once shaky forehand and confidence, to find the right blend of Eastern and Western expertise.
To be frank, which is Li's way, she never inspired complete confidence under big-match pressure. Even when she was in full flow, gliding powerfully into the corners and generating astonishing flat pace with her strong legs and quick hands, one could never rule out an abrupt shift of focus and fortune.
Watching her could be both suspenseful and maddening, and one suspects that if she had chosen to wear a mood ring on court, it would have been flashing a new color with great frequency.
In light of all this, she deserves only more credit for finding a way to punch through the doubts and the demons and win her first two Grand Slam singles titles after age 29, something no other woman has managed since the Open era began in 1968.
Though she saved the best for late, winning the French Open in 2011 and the Australian Open this year, her timing was still impeccable, and she became a rich woman because of it.
Chinese athletes who excel in sports that the West traditionally dominates have a special place in the pantheon: See Liu Xiang in the high hurdles, Yao Ming in the N.B.A. and now Sun Yang in the Olympic swimming pool.
Li, once a badminton prospect, will always be the first Chinese and first Asian to win a Grand Slam singles title, and like Yao, she had a personality to which the Western world could warm.
A language barrier was no obstacle to perceiving her sense of humor and mischief even if she also could be, on the rough days, as walled off as a hutong courtyard. Like many a funny person, Li had a flip side, as when she stared down a Chinese reporter for a minute that felt like an hour at a Wimbledon news conference in 2013.
"She surprised people," her agent Max Eisenbud said Friday, "because everybody has this stigma of what a Chinese athlete is or should be or should look like. And here she is with a tattoo and an earring on the top of her ear. There was a little bit of the maverick about her, and you don't really expect that. Her personality, even her feistiness, she was very real."
It was hardly a given that Li would be the first Chinese woman to become a tennis superstar. Frustrated with the rigid national training system, she retired for the first time at 20 to go to college and live unfettered with her future husband, Jiang Shan. And though she later became the first Chinese player to win a WTA singles title, ticking that box in 2004, Zheng Jie, a sturdy and smaller counterpuncher who plays on at 31, blazed a few trails of her own.
Zheng and Yan Zi became the first Chinese women to win a Grand Slam doubles title in 2006 at the Australian Open. And in 2008, Zheng, as a 133rd-ranked wild card at Wimbledon, became the first Chinese player to reach a Grand Slam singles semifinal.
But Li ultimately won the biggest prizes first, with the help of European coaching, and had the personality to make it doubly memorable.
"I think it was because of the whole package," Eisenbud said. "If Peng Shuai or Zheng Jie would have done the same thing, I honestly don't think it would have been the same."
We will never know, and though the natural conclusion is that young Chinese players inspired by Li will soon be holding up more major trophies, there are no guarantees. Germany once ruled the tennis world and marketplace with Graf and Boris Becker only to see the sport all but disappear from the radar in a hurry. Since Yao's retirement, Chinese players are hardly taking the N.B.A. by storm.
"The tennis boom in China is not a given," said Paul McNamee, the former Australian Open tournament director who was part of that event's push into China and Asia. "It will require nurturing and support. However, with the aura of Li Na and her desire to stay involved, I can see future Grand Slam champions from China within a decade."
Li does intend to remain involved: commercially, philanthropically and developmentally, with an academy in the works and IMG, the sports and media talent agency that has recommitted to tennis under new ownership, looking to leverage her success for the long term.
But her forced retirement does once again deprive the WTA Tour of more star power and the opportunity to create what it sorely lacks: a genuine rivalry at the top. Serena Williams has seen plenty of prospects exit the stage earlier than could have been expected: Martina Hingis, Elena Dementieva, Dinara Safina, Henin and Clijsters. "Put it in chronological order, it's pretty mind-boggling," said Williams's childhood coach Rick Macci.
不过，她的被迫退役确实使得WTA巡回赛的星光又黯淡了一些，也令女子网坛再次失去了弥补其最大缺失的机会：WTA始终未能在最高层次上创造出棋逢对手的局面。塞雷娜·威廉姆斯(Serena Williams)眼看着一个又一个潜在的对手早早退役：玛蒂娜·辛吉斯(Martina Hingis)、叶连娜·德门蒂耶娃(Elena Dementieva)、迪娜拉·萨芬娜(Dinara Safina)、海宁，还有克里斯特尔斯。“按时间先后数过来，实在让人震惊，”威廉姆斯的儿时教练里克·马奇(Rick Macci)说。
Li beat Williams only once in 12 matches and never in a Grand Slam. When Li lost to her for the last time in this year's Miami final in a summit meeting between No. 1 and No. 2, Carlos Rodriguez, Li's coach at that time, gave her another pep talk.
" 'Listen,' I told her, 'You are evolving more and more,' " he said. " 'It takes time. You cannot do what you didn't do in 17 years in a hurry. You have to believe in it, and if you believe, it will work.' "
Six months later, Li, the late bloomer, has run out of time and the ability to play through the pain. But her career path was still quite an evolution, and it will be fascinating to see how the game she once rejected evolves from here: in China and beyond.
n. 山峰；最高点；顶点；帽舌vt. 使达到最高点；使竖起vi. 消瘦；到达最高点；变憔悴adj. 最高的；最大值的
n. 障碍；栏；跳栏vt. 克服vi. 克服；跳过
tattoo [tə'tu:, tæ-]
n. 纹身vt. 刺花纹于vi. 刺花样