Wuhan honors its Hall of Fame hero

Legend Li Na feels the love at special hometown celebration of historic feat

The deafening roar that greeted Li Na at the Wuhan Open on Sunday night showed just how much her Hall of Fame feat means to the city.

The two-time Grand Slam champion always receives a warm welcome at the opening ceremony of her hometown tournament, but this year the fans inside Optics Valley International Tennis Center upped the volume – and with good reason.

Two months ago, Li became the first Asian to be inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island. On Sunday, Wuhan staged a special celebration to honor its hero.

“It was something I’m really proud of. I’m really proud,” said Li. “Not every player who has a Grand Slam title gets to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, but everyone who is in the Hall of Fame must have a Grand Slam title.

“My name is placed alongside so many legends. This is something special, the highest recognition, the best achievement of my tennis career. It’s as exciting as winning another Grand Slam.”

Since retiring in 2014, Li has continued to do her bit for China’s tennis development, not least in her role as ambassador for the Premier 5-level Wuhan Open – one of 10 Chinese events on the WTA calendar, including the glitzy end-of-season WTA Finals, which next month begin a 10-year run in Shenzhen.

“I must work for the Wuhan Open, right?” said the 37-year-old with a smile.

“Well, after the US Open, there are many events in China. Wuhan may not be the best city, but to me it is unique. I’m a Wuhan native and I think promoting this tournament is a natural thing to do.”

The mother of two favors an organic approach to cultivating China’s new breed of tennis stars and advises parents not to force a racket into their kids’ hands.

“Education is the most important thing, and first you have to cultivate children’s interest,” said Li.

“When a child is sincerely interested in something, you don’t have to push them to do it. If you force them to do something, the result will not be good.

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“The truth is not everyone who plays tennis will make it to the very top of the pyramid.

“Playing sports can help you make new friends, get great experience and learn lessons in life. It’s a process of challenging yourself to improve. You don’t need to compare yourself to others.”

Meanwhile, Li said she has no plans to follow fellow Hall of Famer Kim Clijsters out of retirement.

The 36-year-old Belgian stunned the sports world earlier this month when she announced her return to competition, seven years after hanging up her racket.

“I don’t feel like I need to prove anything, but I want to challenge myself and I want to be strong again,” Clijsters, a four-time major winner, said on the WTA Insider Podcast. “This is my marathon. This is where I’m saying, ‘OK, let’s try this.'”

Li said she was a little shocked by the decision.

“My manager sent me a message when he saw the news, and I said, ‘Are you joking?’ It’s a courageous thing to do. Kim loves the sport, and that’s why she decided to come back. No matter what happens, I wish her every success.”

Wimbledon champion Simona Halep, seeded fourth in Wuhan, also could not believe her ears when she heard of Clijsters’ comeback.

“My reaction was like, wow, a little bit shocked honestly,” said Halep. “To have three kids, and she wants to come back. It’s a big, big thing in my opinion. It’s very impressive.

“Now that I have the chance to play against her again I would like to, because she beat me once!”

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