Sit down for an interview with Li Na and it's hard not to be charmed. Her earnest introspection combined with her quick wit and humor can be disarming, and her soft spoken nature in smaller settings begs you to lean forward in your chair to pull in every word. Yet as much time as I've spent in press rooms and interviews with the WTA No.2, she has still remained a bit of a mystery. Though her conversational English is enough to communicate simple ideas, the complexities of her psyche and her history remained a difficult veil to penetrate.
Which is why there was much rejoicing at the news that Li's autobiography, which was previously only available in Mandarin Chinese, has now been translated to English. Originally published in 2012, the book's title translated to "Playing Myself" and has been retitled to the simpler "Li Na: My Life". In Li's own translated words, she tells her story of growing up in Wuhan, China as an athletic prodigy, who was rocked by the death of her beloved father when she was 14 years old and how the scars from the immediate aftermath are still healing.
This is not your typical story of a precocious kid who picked up a tennis racket out of pure love of the game and never looked back. Li paints a picture of a fiercely independent yet tortured soul battling her own self-doubt and haunted by the voices in her past who made her feel like she was never good enough, and her extraordinary life has been been shaped by her drive to quiet those angry demons to become, as she puts it, "a bad-tempered, stubborn girl from Wuhan who was a damn good tennis player."
Here are some of my favorite quotes.
On her breakthrough 2011 French Open title:
To me, the greatest gift that victory brought was peace of mind. After the match, I didn't need to cover my face with a towel or hide in the locker room or bathroom while I wept. I would no longer need to hate myself for every little mistake. I would not have to continue torturing myself. I know 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.
On the gut-wrenching mental aspect of tennis:
Tennis is a lonely sport. You can't experience the sense of belonging that comes from having fought alongside your teammates. You know that everyone's watching you, so when you get bogged down, you can only crawl along under their watchful eyes. You have to put all your effort into finding solutions, even as you constantly curse yourself in your mind and host a sort of internal debate, looking for a crack in your opponent's serve. Of course, this is all on your shoulders alone. You can't even have any physical contact with your opponent. Your field comprises of the small boxes within those few white lines, a racket, and your own lonely and highly irritable mind. This sort of lingering, clinging solitude combined with waves of overwhelming pressure is enough to really drive a person mad.
On being a proud woman from Wuhan:
My trainer had an Italian girlfriend and had learned a lot about Italian culture. He asked me if I was of Italian descent. When I told him I was an authentic Chinese, he said he felt my character was a bit Italian, because I could talk with someone amicably for the first five minutes and suddenly turn antagonistic. Being simple, straightforward and temperamental was typical of the Italian character. When I heard this I wanted to laugh. From his description, Italians sounded a lot like people from Wuhan.
On her enduring love for her husband, Jiang Shan:
People say that there are two kinds of love. One is passionate, the other lasting. I think this makes a lot of sense. Jiang Shan and I share the more lasting type of love. We've been together since we were teenagers, and we're practically an old married couple. If what we felt for each other were just passion, it would have burned itself out by now.
On her coaching relationship with Carlos Rodriguez:
Self-analysis is a very painful thing for me because there are many things that I know subconsciously, but I don't want to face. Carlos told me, 'You must admit these things, and you must let yourself understand them deeply. That's the only way to settle them.' Digging is a painful process, but since I've begun placing these thoughts before me, I've found there's actually no need to flinch. It's best to resolve things, to face up to them. Running away isn't my style.
~ Courtney Nguyen is a freelance tennis writer based in Northern California. She is the blogger behind Sports Illustrated's Beyond the Baseline and co-host of the No Challenges Remaining podcast.