Li Na said she’s sorry Chinese tennis has not moved on more since her retirement, as the country’s fruitless search for a new champion continues.
Li’s two Grand Slam titles set the bar extremely high for her fellow Chinese, who have laboured in vain to match her trail-blazing achievements.
The contrast was laid bare at last week’s Wuhan Open, where Li received a rock-star welcome during a brief appearance, but none of the Chinese players went beyond the third round.
Following her rapturous reception in Wuhan, her home city, Li said she was disappointed that China hadn’t found a new star to love since she stepped off tour in 2014.
“Actually, I didn’t like (that) people always remember me,” said Li, who won the French Open in 2011 and the Australian Open in 2014. “That means Chinese tennis didn’t grow up.”
“(When) I decided to retire, I was thinking next day (new Chinese winners) would come,” she added.
Hopes were high when Peng Shuai reached the 2014 US Open semi-finals, shortly after Li’s retirement, and Zhang Shuai won her second Guangzhou Open title this year.
Wu Yibing also became China’s first boys Grand Slam singles champion at last month’s US Open. But nobody has consistently challenged at the highest levels.
In Wuhan, five Chinese women were in the main draw but Wang Qiang was the only one to reach the third round — the best ever performance by a home player in the tournament.
Peter McNamara, Wang’s Australian coach, said the high expectations created by Li’s career were a problem for Chinese players.
“I think it’s very intimidating having such a great player and champion who did raise the bar to a level that’s pretty hard to get to,” he said.
“I never bring it up, about trying to reach her heights.”
Li was always a special case for Chinese tennis, as she took the maverick step of breaking away from state control to forge her career on her own terms.
The 35-year-old said that modesty, a typical trait of Chinese culture, could be holding players back. Peng is currently the top ranked Chinese player at 24, with Zhang at 26.
“They always say ‘Oh, I’m not so good’ but for the sport you have to show all of the world (you are good),” Li said.
World No.1 Garbine Muguruza also said she found Chinese players “very respectful on the court… very quiet”, in contrast to Li, who she described as having great “intensity”.
Fabrice Chouquet, Wuhan co-tournament director, told AFP that tennis in China was in the middle of a transition between two generations.
“We have a solid No.1 and No.2 here,” he said, referring to Peng and Zhang. “And behind them a younger generation of players that is really going to come up.”
Wang Qiang is part of that new crop, says McNamara, and has yet to reach her full potential.
“My girl is a baby. She’s 25 but she’s 20 as a tennis player,” he said. “This is the thing about Chinese players, they mature late.”
Chinese tennis success has mainly come from women, with Wu’s victory in New York an anomaly. While there are five Chinese women in the top 100 and 11 in the top 200, the top Chinese man is 220-ranked Wu Di.
McNamara said the divide could also be explained by culture in the country of the one-child policy, where sons are highly prized.
“Boys get it fairly easy. Girls don’t,” he said, adding: “They fight very hard, the girls.
“You can see their mentality on the court. They will go to untold lengths to improve.