September 23, 2014
So the rumours were true, Li Na duly retired last week and tennis lost one of its great characters.
But must it really be like this?
No one doubts that she had to call it a day, following months of knee trouble. ‘Will I feel regret?’ the 32-year-old asked herself at a recent news conference. ‘Of course not. I tried my best in my career.’
Li Na not only became incredibly rich in the process, she made history by winning two Grand Slams – the French and Australian. ‘Maybe the next player [from China] will do better than me. I believe that,’ she suggested bravely.
Maybe so, maybe not. All that is for the future. But does tennis really have to lose Li Na, with her smile, her charm, her uncanny ability to bring East and West together?
She has plans in China. A tennis academy for disadvantaged children, complete with tourist resort and spa. Other business ventures including her own brand for home and bath goods. She doesn’t rule out children, either!
But surely the WTA should be able to offer Li Na the sort of global, ambassadorial role that could fit around any personal plans she has for the future?
It is a given that Li Na will be fantastic with Chinese children and that nation’s rising tennis stars. She has generated such huge enthusiasm for our sport back home already.
But she should never be encouraged to restrict herself to China alone.
The entire Far East would benefit from her positive energy. And why stop there? Isn’t she the one character in the tennis world who for years has personified East-West fusion, global unity, all the great things tennis brings to the planet?
Stacey Allaster, the WTA chief executive, doesn’t seem to realise the opportunity that Li Na’s retirement has just afforded her.
‘I don’t think I’ll ever be able to really capture her impact,’ Allaster said recently.
Stacey will make some kind of emotional presentation to Li Na at the Open in Beijing next week. Thanks for the memories, that sort of thing.
‘My goal will be to keep it together,’ added Allaster, thinking back to Li Na’s tearful farewell announcement, when even some of the journalists were in tears.
With all due respect, the WTA should have a much greater goal than maintaining a stiff upper lip. Seize the moment to offer Li Na something unique, something to match her extraordinary status in world tennis.
Give her all the rest and time she needs to explore her personal ambitions. Don’t scare her off. But remind her right now just how loved she is the world over, tell her how vital it is that we don’t lose her.
Make Li Na “WTA Global Ambassador”, give her the platform to continue charming the world, bringing us together, taking the game we adore to new frontiers.
Work something out together. Li Na has always been good at seeing both sides, East and West, breaking down barriers with one funny comment or glorious smile.
So, WTA…the time is right…and the ball is in your court.