By now, the short version of Li Na’s story is well known. She is the most decorated Asian tennis player of all time, winning the 2011 French Open and 2014 Australian Open. On Monday, less than two weeks shy of her 32nd birthday, she will rise to a career-high No. 2 in the WTA rankings. Since her breakout run to the 2011 Australian Open final, she’s made us laugh with her wicked sense of humor and single-handedly changed the landscape of women’s tennis.
But the depth of her story has remained less clear with non-Chinese speakers. Though Li’s improved English allows her to communicate basic ideas, the nuance gets lost in interviews and it can be a struggle to get her to discuss more complex issues. Her autobiography, the title of which translated to “Playing Myself,” was published in China in 2012, but unless you understood Chinese or broke the wrapper on that dusty copy of Rosetta Stone under your desk, you couldn’t read it. The book was finally released in English in December and it is, as expected, a fascinating look into Li’s mind — the stubborn, independent psyche that both propelled her to historic accomplishments and threatened to undermine it all. Retitled Li Na: My Life, the book is available for Kindle on Amazon.com.
So what do we learn about Li? Here’s a sampling of chapter titles: “Behind the Tough Exterior,” “Media Fiasco,” “My World, I Call the Shots” and “I Like Myself Very Much.” She loves Bavarian beer and her house is fully stocked with wine. She’s sorry she yelled at Chinese fans to “shut up” at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. She wants a Siberian Husky, but her husband thinks they’re dirty. She enjoys karaoke, Korean soap operas and CSI. She describes herself as “a sad, stupid hedgehog.” She hopes Carlos Rodriguez coaches her until the end of her career.
The result is a portrait of a woman still wrestling with demons she blames on the Chinese tennis system and, more broadly, on Chinese culture. Li chalks up her crippling self-doubt, which we’ve seen play out on the court over the years, to growing up in China.
“I’m a product of the Chinese style of education, which has led me to hesitate before making any decisions, to lack confidence, to not dare to speak up and to constantly calculate what the result of my action will be,” she writes. “What I hate most is my lack of self-confidence when I’m playing tennis.”
Aside from the intense self-scrutiny that pervades the book, Li also analyzes her most significant matches and walks through her career seasons by season. While she started with modest aspirations, she points to her 6-3, 6-7 (6), 7-6 (3) loss to newly minted U.S. Open champion and fifth-ranked Svetlana Kuznetsova in the second round of the 2004 China Open as the match that made her believe that she might actually have what it takes to win a Grand Slam title (Li was a qualifier ranked No. 193). Beating No. 9 Patty Schnyder at the 2006 German Open for her first victory over a top-10 player finally quieted her doubts — “Dog meat can never make it to the banquet table,” as she puts it – that she was a second-tier player. She recounts her pressure-packed run to the semifinals of the Beijing Olympics, her 2011 French Open title and her memorable loss to Victoria Azarenka in the 2013 Australian Open final in which she fell twice and banged her head on the court.
Li takes the Chinese tennis system to task for its hard-driving, unforgiving coaching methods. A lack of compliments and encouragement from youth coaches molded her into a player with remarkable technique and skill but one who was mentally and emotionally unprepared for high-pressure moments, which she describes as her “Achilles’ heel.”
“Every person has a caged beast in their heart,” Li writes. “It’s aggressive, irritable, violent, scarred and brutal beyond comparison. It was my habit to open the cage during a match and let the beast out to work for me. When I was mentally vulnerable, the beast would turn on me instead. It ridiculed me and humiliated me, making me constantly weep and blame others for my own mistakes.”
The most revealing chapters in the book relate to her family. She writes fondly of her father, a former badminton player who supported his daughter’s foray into sports. Their dream, which seems humble in hindsight, was for her to win the China National Games. Li was 14 and playing in a junior tournament in Shenzhen when he died, and she wasn’t told until after the tournament. Her family struggled with debt as she continued to play and train in the Chinese system. When her mother remarried shortly thereafter, Li couldn’t help but feel abandoned and alone.
“I was obsessed with the notion that she’d betrayed my father and me, and that she was responsible for making a virtual orphan of me,” Li writes. “Anger is stronger than sorrow, and anger can keep you from collapsing.” It’s interesting insight into her relationship with her mother, who doesn’t attend tournaments or, according to Li, even pays much attention to her daughter’s results.
Anger is a strong theme throughout the book. Li tries to sort out the source of it (resentment and insecurity after years of being told she wasn’t good enough) and explain how she’s learned (and is still learning) to deal with it and keep it from getting in the way of what she wants in life. That’s where her husband, Jiang Shan, comes in. The two met as teenagers a month after Li’s father died, when she was invited to join her provincial team. He was the golden boy on the team whom the girls thought was cute. Li was the fiery, independent girl who didn’t think he was all that. Somehow, it clicked.
“A reporter once flatteringly said, ‘Fortunately, Chinese tennis has Li Na,’” she writes. “I thought, That’s not the whole picture. Fortunately, Li Na has Jiang Shan.”
At its heart, Li’s autobiography is a love story. To the tennis public, Jiang is the calm and smiling presence in her player’s box who serves as the uproarious punchline to her raucous jokes. To Li, he is the one person who allows her to be herself. Li isn’t shy in acknowledging his big role in nurturing her career. Her passages about him and their relationship are genuinely touching, particularly because we’re so used to seeing her crack dismissive jokes at his expense.
“I’ve always had a temper like a firecracker,” Li writes, no surprise to those who have watched her shout angrily at her helpless husband during matches. “If someone sets it off it explodes, and as soon as it does, I’m filled with remorse. With outsiders, I can usually endure all sorts of unpleasant behavior. It’s only with Jiang Shan that I pull this sort of ill-behaved nonsense. From what psychologists say, most people are only bad-tempered with those who make them feel secure, because you know that the person won’t leave you. So losing your temper is in fact a form of dependency.”
Jiang has spent countless hours on the phone reassuring her about her game, cooked her meals while she was immobilized after numerous knee surgeries and sat quietly while she cried after losses. She joked after the 2011 Australian Open that it didn’t matter if he was “fat or skinny, handsome or ugly, I’ll always follow you and always love you.” The book makes clear that she didn’t mean that simply as a punchline.
“He’s smarter than me, more savvy, and when I need a shoulder to cry on, he’s the only person to whom I can unload all my cares without reservation,” she writes. “He’s the one person in my life that I cannot do without.”
The book also provides some insight into Li’s complicated relationship with the Chinese media. After winning the French Open, Li writes, “I knew I would no longer see articles in print that referred to me merely as a bad-tempered, stubborn girl from Wuhan. Now I would at least be called a bad-tempered, stubborn girl from Wuhan who was a damn good tennis player.”
There are moments in Playing Myself that make you think this is the WTA’s version of Andre Agassi’s Open. Li is scathingly honest about her mid-match chokes and shares Agassi’s complex feelings about the sport. She played tennis as a child not because she enjoyed it but because it was what people expected her to do. She was good at it so she kept playing. But the game eventually became such a source of pain — both physical and emotional — that she walked away to study journalism in 2002 at age 20. Now, after becoming the first Asian player to win a major title and enjoying the spoils of success, her relationship with tennis is, to put it in Facebook terms, “complicated.”
“As things are now, I can’t use simple terms such as ‘like’ or ‘dislike’ to summarize how I feel about tennis,” she writes. “I don’t want to openly admit that I need tennis. I hated it for many years. But I can’t leave it, and this puts me in a paradoxical situation.”
That paradox is precisely what makes Li one of the most compelling personalities in tennis.