Changed the Game: Li Na, Asia's first tennis star, opened the door for Naomi Osaka

Liz Roscher
·6 min read

"Changed the Game" is a Yahoo Sports series dedicated to the women who are often overlooked, under-appreciated or simply deserve more flowers for their contributions to women's sports history.

Naomi Osaka has been a wrecking ball ever since she burst onto the tennis scene in 2018. She's won four Grand Slam singles titles and achieved the highest ranking ever for an Asian tennis player, No. 1. But she's not the first Asian woman to trod that path. It was first paved by the tennis player Osaka calls her idol: China's Li Na.

Na, the idol's idol, was Asia's first tennis star. She became Asia's first Grand Slam champion in 2011 when she won the French Open. She would achieve a career-high ranking of No. 2 in 2014, the highest for an Asian-born player, and won the 2014 Australian Open. She was enormously popular, inspiring kids in China to get into tennis, and signing millions of dollars in endorsements.

Na opened the door that Osaka walked through, but it wasn't an easy journey.

Standing up to the Chinese government

Na's story is one of perseverance, and many of the details we didn't know about until she wrote her autobiography before she retired in 2013.

After an unsuccessful stint as a badminton player at age 5, her father was persuaded to enroll Na in a sport that was not well known in China: tennis.

“They all agreed that I should play tennis,” Na said via the New York Times, “but nobody bothered to ask me.”

The way to get by in China's state-run sports schools — part of the whole-nation sports system — is to obey. What your coach says is what you do. From an early age, Na had an extremely difficult time with that. Pushed to the point of burnout at age 11, she once stood motionless in one spot on the court for three days as punishment for not wanting to continue her training.

At age 20, suffering from extreme burnout, she left a note in her dorm to Chinese officials requesting retirement, turned off her phone, and left to be with Jiang Shan, a fellow player and her eventual husband. During that time she attended classes at a university and enjoyed a relationship with her boyfriend that she didn't have to hide from Chinese officials.

China's Li Na became the first Asian-born player to win a Grand Slam when she won the French Open in 2011. (JACQUES DEMARTHON/AFP via Getty Images)
China's Li Na became the first Asian-born player to win a Grand Slam when she won the French Open in 2011. (JACQUES DEMARTHON/AFP via Getty Images)

A personal visit from the head of China's state tennis program, Sun Jinfang, convinced her to return to tennis in 2004, and she began her steady rise to the top. But she would continue to butt heads with China's state-run tennis program, which wanted to dictate her schedule, her coaches, and essentially every aspect of her life. Na didn't feel that she could truly excel unless she had freedom.

After an unexpected run to the semifinals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Na felt she could issue an ultimatum. “I told [Sun Jinfang], ‘If I have no freedom, I’m going to quit,’” Na said via the New York Times.

That ultimatum spurred radical change. Sun introduced the "fly solo" option which, in exchange for a commitment to national and provincial teams, allowed Na to pick her own coaches, set her own schedule, and pay just 8-12 percent of her earnings back to the national and provincial teams instead of 65 percent.

The change allowed her to blossom. Less than two years later she made it to the Australian Open semifinals, broke into the WTA top ten, and a year later won her (and Asia') first Grand Slam, the French Open. One-hundred sixteen million people in China watched her achieve that incredible first on TV. She would go on to win the 2014 Australian Open as well before retiring later that year due to persistent knee issues.

The idol's idol

As a kid, Osaka was inspired by Na's success in tennis. But it wasn't just the victories that inspired her — it was Na's irrepressible personality. She would joke and laugh in press conferences and during her on-court interviews, mercilessly teasing her husband-turned-coach Jiang Shan.

“Honestly, for me, I feel very happy when I see her because I remember I used to watch her press conferences or her on-court interviews," Osaka said in 2020. "It’s just so nice seeing someone that’s so happy. And able to bring out such personality after playing such tough matches.”

The two got a chance to meet and chat before the 2020 Australian Open, which was a dream for Osaka.

“Whenever I talk to her, I feel very nervous and I start sweating and I rub my palms,” Osaka recalled. “She probably thought I was very strange. I was able to ask her questions about what she thinks that I can do better and stuff like that. It’s a very big honor that I was able to ask her those questions in the first place.”

Naomi Osaka received the Australian Open championship trophy from Li Na after she won in 2019, five years after Na won. (DAVID GRAY/AFP via Getty Images)
Naomi Osaka received the Australian Open championship trophy from Li Na after she won in 2019, five years after Na won. (DAVID GRAY/AFP via Getty Images)

Na carving her own path

Na, called the "Pride of China," is still enormously popular in her homeland. Seven years after her retirement, fans still approach her for selfies all the time. Part of that is because she's still China's most successful tennis player, but it's also because of how she's played her fame. When she won her the French Open in 2011, she signed more than 10 brand endorsements and became the third-highest earning female athlete in any sport, behind Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova.

Na has been busy with more than endorsements and raising her two children. She earned an executive MBA and she's working to open the Li Na Academy to help kids succeed in tennis.

Even in 2019, at 38 years old, she was still accomplishing important firsts for Asians and Asian women in tennis. That's the year she became the first Asian-born player to be inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. In her acceptance speech, she reflected on her rough start in the sport, which eventually became a trailblazing love affair.

“I hate tennis, honestly. I hate because after school I have to be come to the tennis court, no time play with my friends. When time went by, I really enjoyed this amazing sport. But, what can I say, I am here now. It's great honor to be a Hall of Famer. To join the great names of the tennis legends. In the future I will do all I can to help more young and upcoming players."

Changed The Game: Female athletes who paved the way.
Changed The Game: Female athletes who paved the way.