When Time Magazine unveiled its list of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2013, nestled among icons from various fields was China's tennis sensation Li Na. Beyond her success on the court, Li stood as a testament to her nation’s shifting cultural landscape, defying traditional norms and championing a new era of resilience.
Li, with her pioneering spirit, helped tennis explode in China, charming audiences and securing her place among tennis legends and iconic figures. As Chris Evert said at the time, she transcended the sport much like Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova once did.
A decade later, her influence remains undeniable.
At this year’s US Open, Zheng Qinwen, the rising star from China, was asked to amplify some details of her origin story. Growing up, what was her first recollection of Li or any role model?
“You just say the right name,” she said. “Actually it was Li Na. If you want to say the first memory, because when she won the  French Open, the real first time, the first Asian who won a Grand Slam, that gives a lot to young kids, especially for me.
“In that moment I start to think, ‘Oh, as an Asian, we are also able to win a Grand Slam at a big stage like that.’ Before that, tennis isn’t so popular in China. I mean, my parents didn’t know what is tennis before I start to play. That’s true.”
Li was always ahead of her time, producing a stirring string of watershed events for Asian tennis players -- both male and female. She captured that unprecedented Grand Slam title at Roland Garros and, three years later, a second at the Australian Open.
Off the court, Li's path earlier in her career was built on the foundations of the state sports system, dictating many of her career choices. Unhappy with these constraints, Li voiced her feelings, challenging the norms.
Soon after the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, Chinese tennis players were finally able to take control of their schedules, choose their own teams and hold on to more of their earnings, a departure from the old system where they were forced to hand over 65 percent to the government. This shift marked a significant transformation.
Li's game flourished. She became a staple in the Top 10 and would go on to win two Grand Slam titles.
As the Hologic WTA Tour continues to celebrate its 50th season with a 1000 event in Beijing, let’s revisit the ground-breaking accomplishments of the charming and witty, self-deprecating athlete.
Just as Venus and Serena Williams opened up a world of possibilities for a younger generation of Americans, Li showed emerging Chinese players what was possible on the global stage. Considering China is an enormous country with a population soaring past 1.4 billion, this was no small thing. It’s an untapped resource starting to show signs of awakening.
The fingerprints of Li Na can be seen all over the WTA Tour rankings. There are five players in the Top 100 from China, all in their 20s: No.23 Zheng Qinwen, No.34 Zhu Lin, No.37 Wang Xinyu, No.57 Wang Xiyu and No.95 Wang Yafan. Two were Grand Slam quarterfinalists this year. Three were tournament champions.
The swift development of tennis in China, as seen in numerous WTA and ITF relatively new events, is directly attributable to Li’s success. This made the path much easier for young Chinese players as they worked their way up the professional tennis ladder.
Zheng, a powerful 5-foot-10 athlete who is only 20 years old, seems bound for the Top 10. She reached the quarterfinals of the recent US Open, defeating Ons Jabeur in the fourth round and won her first title earlier this year in Palermo. And there’s more incoming talent: No.119 Bai Zhuoxuan, only 20, qualified at Ningbo before pushing eventual finalist Diana Shnaider to three sets in the first round.
You can also credit Li with the breakthrough achievements of Zhang Zhizhen on the men’s side. A year ago, he became the first Chinese man ever to be ranked among the ATP’s Top 100 players and has been as high as No.52. Earlier this year, Wu Yibing became the second-highest-ranked Chinese man ever, reaching No.54.
Considering both the WTA and ATP successes, it can be strenuously argued that this has been the greatest year ever for Chinese tennis.
“Obviously the belief,” said Wang Xinyu, who Thursday lost a Round of 16 match to Maria Sakkari in Beijing. “She was the first one to do it, so for all the Chinese players, we started to believe we could do it too. Also starting from there, we started getting more support. More people were getting involved in tennis and tennis became more popular.”
Li was born in 1982, in Wuhan, Hubei. Her father, Li Shengpeng, was a professional badminton player and Li Na soon followed that path at the age of 6. But two years later, at the suggestion of a youth coach, she switched to tennis. By the age of 15, she was a member of the national team.
Sponsored by Nike, Li spent nearly a year at the John Newcombe Academy in Texas, which gave her a vastly different perspective from the Chinese system. After turning professional in 1999 at the age of 16, she left the national team for a period of study and earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Unhappy with the numerous restrictions imposed on her, including the distribution of prize money, she left the team in 2008, a brave move at that time.
In terms of her tennis career, Li was never afraid to do what she felt was right. While her husband, Jiang Shan, initially served as her coach, she made the controversial decision to hire a series of coaches from outside the Chinese system. Thomas Hogstedt (Sweden), Michael Mortensen (Denmark) and Carlos Rodriguez (Argentina) elevated her game to an elite level. More than a decade later, Wang Xinyu, Wang Xiyu and Zheng Qinwen would all find success with that same blueprint.
The headlines at the 2011 French Open focused on Novak Djokovic’s undefeated start to the year. He was 41-0 when he fell to Roger Federer in the semifinals. In retrospect, Li Na’s 6-4, 7-6 (0) victory over defending French Open champion Francesca Schiavone was more meaningful.
At the age of 29, Li was a major champion.
“At 6-0 in the tiebreak, I was thinking, `OK, don’t do anything stupid,’” she told reporters afterward. “Because many times I have had match point and not won the match. When I was a young player, I wanted to be a Grand Slam champion, and now I am.
“Someone said the other day that I’m getting old, so this old woman’s dream has come true.”
Some 65 million people back in China watched the final on television or online.
“If a Chinese player can win a Grand Slam maybe it proves a lot for Chinese tennis,” Li said, presciently. “I believe Chinese tennis will get bigger and bigger.”
She reached the semifinals of the Australian Open in 2010, her best effort in a major, and then lost in the 2011 and 2013 finals in Melbourne. In 2014, Li went one better, defeating Dominika Cibulkova 7-6 (3), 6-0. This time, an estimated 70 million watched at home.
“One more step,” Li said. “This is my fourth final. I have more experience. I care about what I should do on the court, not about what I did in the past.”
Less than six months later, she had played her last match, a third-round loss at Wimbledon to Barbora Strycova. A left knee injury that required surgery effectively ended her career; she announced her retirement, at the age of 32, in September and bid a tearful goodbye on court in Beijing.
The resume she left behind is dazzling.
Li produced a stellar singles record of 503-188 (.728) and won nine titles. She rose as high as the No.2 ranking and made the quarterfinals at all four majors -- the semifinals in three. She was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2019. Today she is a mother of 8-year-old Alisa and 6-year-old Sapajou.
As for the overall effect she had on the sport in her nation, consider this: In 2011, there were only two events in China. In 2019, that total was nine, a number that was temporarily halted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Li surfaced this summer at Wimbledon, playing legends doubles with Agnieszka Radwanska and posing for a photo with Roger Federer and Lindsey Vonn. It went viral in China, where Li has 21 million followers on Weibo.
Those in her debt have not forgotten.
“After Li Na,” Zheng said in New York, “tennis became a more popular sport in China. Thanks to her a lot. She also put a dream seed in my heart that I want to become like that.”