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Search for the next Li Na: More difficult than you think

WUHAN, China -- On a sellout opening night at the Dongfeng Motor Wuhan Open in Wuhan, central China, a huge roar rolls through the packed stands as Li Na walks on to the court.

Li, 35, quit tennis in 2014, but Asia's first Grand Slam singles champion is still very much the face of the sport in the world's most populous nation and second-largest economy.

Li Na remains the only Chinese-born player to ever win a Grand Slam. Kevin Lee/Getty Images
"When I decided to retire, I was thinking the next day they would come," Li said at the Wuhan Open, after giving a tennis masterclass to a raucous crowd of 2,000 students at one of the outside show courts in the city of her birth.

Although there are now 11 Chinese women inside the top 200 of the women's WTA Tour, including two inside the top 30, since Li retired because of chronic injury, no one has gone beyond a Grand Slam semifinal (Peng Shuai, 2014 French Open).

"I don't like that people always remember me, really," said Li, a global brand ambassador for the Wuhan Open. "Because I feel if the people always remember me, that means Chinese tennis didn't grow up. Sometimes if people always remember, you can feel a lot of pressure."

With Li retired, and now the mother of two young children with her husband and former coach, Jiang Shan, the search is very much on for China's next big tennis star.

"This morning, I saw Li Na at the gym," Zhang Shuai, the world's 26th-ranked player, said in Wuhan. "She has stopped playing but she is still working very hard. And she told me to 'just be free, go whatever you want.'

"She is an inspiration and my favorite player, and I really want one day to be like her," said Zhang, China's No. 2 player, who reached the 2016 Australian Open quarterfinals just a few months after having considered retiring from the game.

"Li Na has done an unbelievable job for this country," Zhang's coach, Shuo Liu, said. "After her success, more Chinese players now believe they can do the same thing."

Although Chinese women had won Olympic doubles gold, Li became the first player from China to clinch a major singles title, at the 2011 French Open. That victory, watched by more 116 million television viewers in China alone, turned her into a superstar at home and one of the world's best-paid female athletes.

Before Li's Roland Garros victory, there were only a few tournaments staged in China. Now the country hosts nine top-tier women's tournaments and dozens of second-tier events. It also no longer stages its national championships during Wimbledon.

Li's victory also proved to be a game-changer for the development of tennis in China, where some 15 million people now regularly play tennis, according to the International Tennis Federation. That's 14 million more than in 1988, the year tennis returned to the Olympic family.

"They have many more opportunities to play the top players than before," Shuo said. "You can see how they prepare for the match, how they are hitting on the big points.

Ten years ago, this was impossible. We wouldn't have had a chance to experience all of this."

Li's face adorns huge billboards splashed all over town in Wuhan, a city of 10 million people in central Hubei province that is best known for its automotive industry.

The local government has invested $225 million in building state-of-the-art facilities at its 33-acre site that includes a stadium modeled on Melbourne's Rod Laver Arena, complete with retractable roof.

Wuhan's association with Li and the Wuhan Open, its first top-level international sports event, is putting the city on the map globally and within China, according to Liu Yingzi, vice mayor of Wuhan.

"She's very important to our city," Liu said. "She's representative of the city of Wuhan and also of the character of Wuhan. She's open, very direct and shows her emotions."

Peter McNamara, a former Grand Slam champion in doubles and now a leading coach, said China would become a major force in the near future.

"You have to understand, tennis is going to be a huge sport in China in 10 years' time," said the Australian, who coaches Qiang Wang, the first Chinese player to reach the third round at the Wuhan Open.

"There are the tournaments, the facilities, the teaching methods, just everything is improving day by day," said McNamara, one of a host of foreign coaches who have worked for the Chinese Tennis Association.

"Li didn't train in China, because she didn't like the system," McNamara said. "But the system is going to get better. The Chinese are very good at teaching technique, but they're not very good at teaching where to hit the ball. And today, it is not about how you hit the ball, it's about where you hit the ball."

Author: Danielle Rossingh
Source: http://www.espn.com/tennis/story/_/id/20857747/tennis-search-next-li-na-more-difficult-think

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