What happens when athletes retire? Li Na, Zou Shiming, Christopher Pitts and Stéfanie Vallée have all represented their countries in the sport that they've mastered. For various reasons — injuries, changes of priotities in life, the pursuit of another dream and practical concerns about income — they've all now transitioned into other roles in their lives.
In our four-part 'After the Finish Line' series, we look at their transformations — from a tennis legend to a mother and the ambassador for the sport, an Olympic gold medalist to a professional boxing champion and reality TV star, an observed trial cyclist to a chef, and a kayakist to an artist and executive coach. First up, we chat with tennis superstar Li Na.
It has been almost two years since Li Na announced her decision to retire from professional tennis as a result of the chronic injuries to her knees. Since then, the nine WTA singles and two Grand Slam singles titles winner has been keeping busy. You can see her face plastered around the country with high profile commercial endorsements for national brands as well as through her engagements as the spokesperson for various non-profit organizations. In addition to that, she’s also been traveling to different cities within China as an ambassador for tennis to promote the sport and most recently appeared at a press conference at her birthplace to lend support to the Wuhan Open.
On a more personal level, Li and her husband Jiang Shan welcomed their first child, Alisa, to the world in June 2015. She’s currently pregnant with her second child and is due to give birth before December. In many public appearances after her retirement, she’s repeatedly expressed the joys of focusing on her duties as a mother.
Though she’s been a playing tennis on a professional level since 1999, Li Na wrote in her autobiography, My Life, that “it was only in 2009 that I really entered the professional arena, so before that, it’s more accurate to say I was a vocational athlete.”
Li retired from tennis in 2014. (Image by Ncousla / Depositstockphotos.com)
She was referring to her mixed feelings toward tennis, which she started training under the orders of her parents and had initially resented playing the sport. “I was the happiest in the last two or three years [of my tennis career]. At that point, I understood myself more and had learned how to become better,” she says at an publicity event for her pregnancy diary last month.
Li is referring to the period when she shot to stardom with her performance. She became the first and only Grand Slam singles champion from Asia with her victory against Francesca Schiavone of Italy at the 2011 French Open. Three years later, she won her second and final Grand Slam title at the 2014 Australian Open, defeating Dominika Cibulkova in straight sets – making history once again as the first Asian to ever win the tournament.
"It was the hardest decision I'd made in my life... I made it only after it became clear that there was nothing more that could be done for my knees."
At the age of 32 and seemingly at the peak of her career, the announcement of her decision to retire in September 2014 came as a surprise to some – but it was really just a matter of time. “It was the hardest decision I’d made in my life… and I made it only after it became clear there was nothing more that could be done for my knees,” she says at the event.
In her open letter of retirement, Li Na wrote, “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… My chronic injuries will never again let me be the tennis player I can be… Walking away from the sport, effective immediately, is the right decision for me and my family.”
At the age of 32 and seemingly at the peak of her career, the announcement of her decision to retire in September 2014 came as a surprise to some – but it was really just a matter of time.
After stopping her intense training and professional competitions for nearly two years, the tennis legend’s nagging injury isn’t affecting her everyday routine. “It doesn’t really bother me now that I don’t need to engage in extreme levels of physical activity,” Li explains. “I’d like to have one more knee surgery but the recovery period is quite long and I’ve got a lot to do. When I can clear [my schedule for] eight months, I’ll probably get that done.”
With another child on the way, she admits that she’s actually more nervous for the second pregnancy – mostly because there’s another one-year-old at home for her to take care of as well.
When asked whether she’d want her children to follow her footsteps and pursue a career in sports, Li Na replies: “My husband and I don’t want to tell my baby that Mom was a tennis player. Even though Jiang Shan and I were both tennis professionals, I think each child should have the freedom to choose what they want to be when they grow up, and not just follow what their parents did.”
As for what she misses the most about being a world-renowned professional tennis player, Li Na says, “I miss the ability to test myself and my opponents on the court. This is a feeling that’s hard to get now.”
[Top image via Flickr]