To some observers, Li Na is the bad girl of women's tennis, known as much for her outbursts on and off the court—and for poking fun at her husband, former teammate and coach Jiang Shan —as she is for her powerful backhand.
That side was on display at this year's French Open, the tournament that two years earlier had catapulted Ms. Li into the spotlight. Her championship run in Paris in 2011 made her the first Chinese player to win a Grand Slam singles title. In China, 116 million people tuned into the final.
Li Na after a win at this year's U.S. Open; she reached the semifinals where she fell to eventual champion Serena Williams Getty Images
But this year she fell in the second round—and then snapped at a reporter from China's Xinhua news agency for asking whether she had an explanation for her fans.
"Do I need to get on my knees and kowtow to them?" she said. "Apologize to them?" Those remarks caused a stir among Ms. Li's followers on Weibo, China's Twitter-like microblogging service, where she was criticized for the blunt retort.
The 31-year-old star, currently ranked the No. 3 women's singles player in the world, also has faced criticism for comments that she didn't initially love tennis and was forced into playing the game by her ambitious father. But this past week she struck a conciliatory tone. "When I was a child, it was the choice of my parents that I should do tennis," she told a group of students at the International School of Beijing. "Now I realize it was the right choice."
Ms. Li made history when she broke away from China's national team and the country's state-run sports system after the Olympic Games in 2008, the first Chinese athlete to do so. The danfei (fly solo) initiative gave her the freedom to manage her own career, choose her own coach, and form her own coaching and training team—and pay for it all herself.
An English translation of her autobiography, "My Story," was published this month, two years after the release of the Chinese-language version.
Ms. Li said she wrote the book so that people would understand that she is more than just an athlete. "I can be a wife, or a friend—so many things," she said. "I want people to know exactly how my life was when I was growing up, and also because Western and Chinese [people] are so totally different."
The book includes a harrowing scene at the time of her father's death, when she was 14 years old. Her family didn't tell her that he had died until she came home for a visit from a youth tournament and saw his body laid out in a room.
"Before, I'd always thought that growing up was a gradual process," she writes. "But that day, I learned that people can grow up in a single moment."
The Journal spoke with Ms. Li about competing against her friend Petra Kvitova, training for her next tournament and her message for young fans. Edited excerpts:
Who among the top 10 tennis players do you most enjoy playing against?
[Petra] Kvitova, because we are very good friends. We can talk a lot about not only tennis, but…about women's lives. You fight a lot on the court, but off the court, we're friends. Even during a match I can get so angry at her coach, but after, we have fun.
What gave you the courage to break away from China's national team?
If I didn't stay on the national team [as long as I did], I could not have my team right now. Because I stayed on the national team for over 10 years, I got more experience. If when I started to play tennis, my family paid for that, I don't think I could continue until now. If I stayed on the national team, it would have been much easier. There's less pressure, because it doesn't matter if you're doing well or not. You've always got prize money. You don't have to worry about paying for a coach, paying for the traveling, everything. But right now I have my team, and of course there is more pressure, because if you're not doing well, you don't have money to pay for your coach. So it's a very good challenge. Once I asked my husband, "What if one day, we only have zero in the bank? What do you think?" And he's different from Chinese people. He said, "It's OK, it doesn't matter, we'll start again." I was like, "What?"
What are your best qualities?
I think body and mentally, both. I know especially after [the] last year, so many people were talking about age. So I said, "What do you mean age? I'm just over 30!" I'm not saying I'm the best, but I show up. Over 30, I've got more experience. I was feeling much, much stronger than before. On the court, I think I'm smarter now.
Are you in training now?
Yes, I'm training with Carlos [Rodriguez ] in Beijing. He has an academy in Beijing, so I have more time and can stay in China. [My next tournament is in] Shenzhen, in the first week of January. Then one week off, and then Melbourne [for the Australian Open].
You recently took off three weeks after your defeat in the WTA Championship finals in Istanbul against Serena Williams. What did you do during that time?
I was still busy. I had to make every sponsor happy. I started at 8 in the morning and finished at 8 in the evening, so it was 12-hour days, seven days a week. When I finished, I was back home with my mom, an important person to me, for four days. And my husband, too—we went on vacation.
What message does your book offer young people?
I really wish that after they read the book, they feel, "Ah, she's normal. She's not, like, special or something." I just want to give information to them that everyone has to have a goal. If you make a goal, you can be a hero for yourself.
You've written in your book about the influence of your father. What would he think of you today?
You know, Chinese for sure like to drink wine. So if he was still alive now, he would say, "Oh, I have a good daughter. Cheers!"
Are your achievements for yourself or for China?
It's very tough to say because for my mind, I think I have to cheer for myself first. If you make your goal too big, it makes it difficult to actually focus on anything. I don't feel I can represent all of China.
by Debra Bruno http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/...49470996107240