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By Scott Riley, Tennis Editor - Archive - Email
Li, We Hardly Knew Ye
Li Na Li Na was a two-time Grand Slam champion and two-time runner-up.
Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - It's never good news for a sport when it loses one of its biggest stars to retirement. And that's exactly what happened to tennis on Friday when Li Na announced she was hanging up her racquet.

The 32-year-old Chinese star had battled right knee problems for years, having undergone several surgeries on it in order to prolong her rather influential career.

But the left knee was also starting to plague the face of Chinese tennis, enough so to ultimately prompt a not-so-surprising retirement announcement.

"Most people in the tennis world know that my career has been marked by my troubled right knee," Li said in an open letter she posted online. "The black brace I wear over it when I step on the court has become my tennis birth mark. And while the brace completes my tennis look, the knee problems have at times overtaken my life.

"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."

Li, who's known for her quirky, biting humor, must not have been feeling like her humorous self over the past few months, as those bad knees landed her on the shelf following a third-round loss at Wimbledon. She also decided to skip the U.S. Open, and the retirement writing was on the wall.

The world No. 6 and one-time world No. 2 trailblazer had not played anywhere since the Wimbledon setback in June.

In 2011, Li became the first-ever Asian-born player, male or female, to capture a Grand Slam event when she topped the field at the French Open and she became a two-time major titlist just this year when she ran the table at the Australian Open, where she'd finished as a runner-up in both 2011 and 2013. That's three Aussie finals in four years if you're counting at home.

But as is so often the case, thee knees can dictate a tennis player's longevity, or lack thereof.

An intricate tape job on the right one had been a staple of Li's on-court attire for years. In her autobiography she'd detailed the painful procedures she had to undergo just to stay on the court.

She'd had enough.

Did You Know?: Li's late father, Shengpeng Li, was a professional badminton player.

The athletic, aggressive baseliner Li, a fixture in the women's top 10 over the last four years, had been on the competitors' list for next week's inaugural Wuhan Open, a Premier event that will be staged in her hometown. Her retirement, as you would imagine, has completely overshadowed the much- anticipated tournament just as qualifying was getting underway in the city of more than 10 million people.

Following a first-round loss at the French Open and the third-round setback at Wimbledon, Li split with her coach, Carlos Rodriguez, the former coach of former world No. 1 great Justine Henin.

"Winning a Grand Slam title this year and achieving a ranking of World No. 2 is the way I would like to leave competitive tennis," she said. "As hard as it's been to come to this decision, I am at peace with it. I have no regrets."

Li's tennis breakthrough opened up the Chinese market to the sport and she quickly became the face of Asian tennis. Three years ago there were just two WTA events in China, but that number has grown to five, not including a new tournament in Hong Kong and the WTA Finals set to be staged in Singapore next month.

"Representing China on the tennis court was an extraordinary privilege and a true honor," Li said. "Having the unique opportunity to effectively bring more attention to the sport of tennis in China and all over Asia is something I will cherish forever. But in sport, just like in life, all great things must come to an end.

"On a personal side, I look forward to starting a new chapter of my life, hopefully having a family and reconnecting with those I did not have the luxury of spending a lot of time with while playing. I can't wait to revisit all the amazing places I played tennis in and see the world through a new set of eyes. I look forward to slowing down and living my life at a new, slower, relaxed pace."

Forbes recently listed Li at No. 2, behind only Maria Sharapova, on the list of highest-paid female athletes on the planet, raking in $23.6 million last year.

She wound up with nine titles in 21 WTA finals, including a runner-up finish at last year's Tour Championships, and leaves as the undisputed ambassador of Asian tennis.

"Whether you want to be a tennis player, a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher or a business leader, I urge you to believe in yourself and follow your dream. If I could do it, you can too! Be the bird that sticks out. With hard work, your dreams will come true."

Happy trails, Li!

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