By Andrew Both
(Reuters) – China will likely produce another Grand Slam women’s champion in the next decade, predicts Li Na, the only player from her nation to taste victory in any of tennis’s four biggest tournaments.
As Li prepares to reflect on her career at her induction into the Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island on Saturday, she has an eye on the future of the sport in her home country.
She said the move of the WTA Finals to Shenzhen for the next decade — the first time starting in October — will inspire Chinese players, even if they are not playing the event.
“(Having the event in China is) not only good for the fans, it’s also good for the athletes, especially the young athletes,” the twice Grand Slam champion told Reuters in an interview on Thursday.
“Face-to-face they can see the top players. It’s not only on the court but also off the court, the professional tennis life (that is important).”
Until Japan’s Naomi Osaka won last year’s U.S. Open, Li was the only Grand Slam winner from Asia, male or female, and she will be the first inducted into the Hall of Fame.
China has four women ranked in the world’s top 100 but no men in the top 200.
Unsurprisingly, Li said it was more likely a woman would win the nation’s next Grand Slam.
“I think the women’s side is much easier because after I won the Grand Slam, young girls think they can do the same,” she said. “For the men’s, it’s a little bit tough.”
Li, 37, retired in 2014 after battling knee injuries for several years.
She is seven months younger than Roger Federer and was glued to the television in the wee hours of the night in Beijing watching Sunday’s classic five-set Wimbledon final.
Li could not believe that Federer blew two match points on serve in defeat to Novak Djokovic.
“I thought, ‘OK, it’s over’,” she said. “After watching the match I couldn’t go to sleep. It was like three o’clock in the morning. It was so exciting.”
So what did she make of Djokovic’s comeback?: “Only one thing, how strong his mind is, so tough.”
Li never made it past the quarter-finals on the grass of Wimbledon, her Grand Slam titles coming on clay at the 2011 French Open and hardcourt at the 2014 Australian Open.
She also lost two Australian Open finals, the first in 2011, a match she surprisingly ranks as the best memory of her career despite defeat in three sets to Kim Clijsters.
“I was really close to taking the trophy,” Li said.
“Even though I didn’t win the match, it still gave me a lot of confidence.”
Li said her best career performance did not come at a Grand Slam, however, but in Stuttgart, where she beat Serena Williams 0-6 6-1 6-4 in 2008.
“Only once I beat Serena,” Li said, laughing when asked whether Williams had been her toughest opponent.
(Reporting by Andrew Both in Cary, North Carolina; Editing by Ian Ransom)