WUHAN, China (AFP) – China’s Li Na announced her retirement at the age of 32 over persistent knee injuries on Friday, prompting a wave of adulation for Asia’s greatest and most influential tennis player.
Li, the first Asian national to win a Grand Slam singles title, said “my body is begging me to stop the pounding” as she ended a career that brought her nine titles and introduced tennis to the masses in China.
“As a professional tennis player, it is the best decision for me to leave the field,” Li posted on her Sina Weibo microblog, adding that injuries have “for a long time prevented me playing as I had before”.
“I’ve achieved far more than I’d dreamed for, and it’s my biggest pride to have won glory for the country,” she wrote.
The announcement comes just seven months after Li lifted the Australian Open title, one of her career highlights following her historic French Open win of 2011.
That heady night in Melbourne proved the last time Li would win a trophy as she fell victim to her knee injuries and was sidelined since losing in Wimbledon’s third round in June.
Li was also hit by a heavy blow when her inspirational coach Carlos Rodriguez, former mentor of Justine Henin, ended their partnership in July.
Li’s success put her on the cover of Time magazine and saw her placed second, behind Russia’s Maria Sharapova, on a Forbes list of the highest paid female athletes.
She was also positioned front and centre of a push by women’s tennis into Asia, with several new tournaments including next week’s WTA Wuhan Open in her home city.
In a lengthy English-language statement posted on her Facebook page, Li said she hoped to open a tennis academy and called her accomplishments on behalf of China “one of my most proud achievements”.
Li famously opted out of China’s state sports system and has previously been accused of a lack of patriotism during a sometimes rocky relationship with domestic press.
“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, noting that whereas she has bounced back from surgery in the past, “this time, it felt different”.
Li began her journey to stardom as a seven-year-old when as a young badminton player she was introduced to coach Xia Xiyao, who convinced her to switch to tennis.
“I could see in her eyes she was eager. She had a very clever appearance. She was very keen,” Xia told AFP at Wuhan’s Xinhua Lu sports centre, where the pair met.
“She has had a massive influence on Chinese tennis. When Li Na started playing there were a lot fewer tennis players, but there are more and more because of her,” she added.
Nearby in the Hankou district of the sprawling metropolis of 10 million people is a statue of Li at a local park adjacent to the Yangtze River.
“We are very proud of sister Li, so we respect her decision,” said 20-year-old Li Lin, using a commonly used term in China to describe the tennis star.
“She is the most famous person to come from Wuhan and China’s best sportsperson,” she added, as her boyfriend took pictures of the statue.
News of Li’s retirement was quickly trending on China’s social networks with nearly 19 million messages posted in just half-an-hour after the announcement.
Many users reacted with emotional praise for Li.
“Retiring with glory, you are always the pride of China tennis,” one user wrote.
“Thank you for bringing us so many exciting games; watching you has become a ritual for me,” posted another.