Beijing — It was a fitting goodbye for China’s biggest tennis star, complete with hugs from her former competitors, cheers from Chinese fans, and a bouquet of flowers from Rafael Nadal.
There were also tears. Plenty of tears.
Li Na received a touching send-off at the China Open on Tuesday, more than a week after she announced her retirement from the sport, citing recurring knee injuries.
Wearing a black pantsuit and her hair pulled back in a low bun, the two-time major winner fought back tears as she walked onto center court to a rapturous applause and a giant red banner proclaiming in English, “Yes, This is Li Na’s Motherland — China.”
With some 40 women’s players standing behind her, she then watched as highlights of her biggest tennis moments played on the stadium’s giant screens, and listened to tributes from tennis officials and one of her closest friends on tour, two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova.
“The most important thing I want to say tonight is thank you for being our opponent, thank you for being our inspiration, and thank you for being our friend,” Kvitova said before giving Li a hug. “We will miss you, champion.”
WTA chairman Stacey Allaster also wished Li well, saying the tour would miss her “beautiful smile and fun personality.”
“You’re a true champion and pioneer who has made such a difference in so many people’s lives,” Allaster said. “You are the player of this decade, who has made the most impact and growth on women’s tennis.”
Just as the ceremony was about to conclude, there was one more surprise: Nadal emerged on court carrying a bouquet of flowers, accompanied by Li’s husband, Jiang Shan, who was a constant fixture in the stands during her matches and the butt of many of her jokes in her post-match interviews at the Australian Open.
There were no jokes this time, though, as Li did a final lap around the court, waving goodbye with more tears streaming down her face.
She finally managed a smile as the crowd chanted in unison, “Li Na, I love you.”
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