Former French Open and Australian Open champion Li Na, the first Asian player to win a Grand Slam singles title, planned to announce Friday morning in Beijing that she was retiring because of worsening of knee injuries that had plagued her throughout her career. (Also read: Sad day for tennis, says Martina Hingis on Li Na's Exit)
Li, 32, has not played since a third-round loss at Wimbledon in July. She withdrew from the U.S. Open in August, citing her knee injury, and made plans to announce her retirement in a letter posted on social media.
"The task of finally making a decision to hang up my racquet felt a lot more difficult than winning seven matches in a row in the Australian heat," she wrote in the letter. "It took me several agonizing months to finally come to the decision that my chronic injuries will never again let me be the tennis player that I can be. Walking away from the sport, effective immediately, is the right decision for me and my family."
Li had three surgeries on her right knee from 2008 to 2009 to alleviate problems caused by excess cartilage, and after her loss at Wimbledon she underwent a fourth surgery on her left knee.
"After four knee surgeries and hundreds of shots injected into my knee weekly to alleviate swelling and pain, my body is begging me to stop the pounding," she wrote.
Li's retirement comes just more than three years after she triumphed at the 2011 French Open to become the first Chinese player, and the first Asian, to win a Grand Slam singles title. She added a second Grand Slam crown in January at the Australian Open, a victory that took her to a career-high ranking of No. 2. She remained in that spot, behind top-ranked Serena Williams, until late July, when her ranking slid as a result of her injury layoff.
Li's exit comes at a time when women's tennis has poured more and more resources into China and Asia. There were only two WTA events in China a decade ago; this year there are 10. This is also the first year that the year-end WTA Finals will be played in Asia, beginning a five-year stint in Singapore.
The WTA's chief executive, Stacey Allaster, said the full power of Li's legacy would not be understood until the generation of young Chinese girls she inspired began to emerge on tour years from now.
"Without question I believe that Li Na is the player of this decade who will have the most impact on the growth of women's tennis," Allaster said. "We will see the fruit of her contributions. We're experiencing them now, but they will be long-lasting throughout the rest of this decade, and I believe for decades to come."
Allaster compared Li's effect to that of the woman who started the tour, calling her "our Asian Billie Jean King."
"When we look at the foundation of the WTA," Allaster said, "it was about a women's organization becoming commercially successful so that any girl, anywhere in the world, if she dreamt about playing women's professional tennis, that she could. And it was about driving social change. Li Na has done all of those things, for herself and for her country, and for women."
Li's retirement comes on the eve of the inaugural WTA tournament in her hometown, Wuhan, bringing her improbable journey full-circle.
Following in her father's footsteps, Li first wielded a badminton racket. Dissatisfied with how the young Li used her entire arm to swing rather than her wrist, her coaches recommended that she switch to tennis, a sport she and most Chinese had never heard of at the time.
Li was sent to board at a school for sports when she was 8. The rigorous training she went through there included marathon sessions on courts made of packed dirt as coaches offered frequent criticism and scant praise. Her travel to tournaments around China caused her to miss the death of her father when she was 14.
"Each player grows up under this accumulated pressure," she wrote in her 2012 memoir, "My Life." "It's inhumane, but it's also very effective."
Though she had strong results earlier, including a fourth-place finish at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, Li transformed her career later that year when she was allowed to break away from the national team system and hire her own team of coaches and trainers. She was also allowed to hire her own agent for the first time, and under the guidance of Max Eisenbud of IMG she profited handsomely from her first Grand Slam triumph.
In a Forbes listing of the highest-paid athletes this year, Li's annual earnings of $23.6 million put her second among female athletes.
Li opened up to Eisenbud after her loss at Wimbledon, and he reassured her that she was not obligated to continue playing.
"I think in that culture, I got the feeling that she felt like she needed to keep playing for other people," Eisenbud said. "And I told her that she's a great champion and she has nothing to prove to anybody, and this is her decision, her life and her career. And if you're ready to stop, that's great, and we'll get on to the next phase of your life."
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