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Games just another 'stop' for Li
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08:52, August 22, 2008

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· Beijing 2008 Olympic Games
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While most Olympians enjoy a break after finishing their competitions at the Olympics, Chinese tennis ace Li Na is packing for a trip to the US Open, which starts on Monday.

The 26-year-old Li says she needs to forget about the past few weeks and look to the future, even though she made Chinese tennis history by reaching the semifinals at the Games.

The buzz over the Olympic tennis competition is still in the air - fans are talking about it, Li's Olympic matches are being replayed on TV and the Chinese media are falling over each other to get interviews with the team.

Many believe this was the pinnacle of Li's career, but Li says it was just another "stop" on her busy tennis tour schedule.

"I understand how much the Olympics means to many people. But for me, as a professional tennis player, it is a just a tournament," Li said in an interview with China Daily yesterday.

She could choose to be happy after eliminating top seeds and Grand Slam champions, including Svetlana Kuznetsova and Venus Williams, en route to the semifinals.

But Li, a former Wimbledon quarterfinalist, showed how she has matured over the years, understanding that there is always another tournament and the importance of not getting hung up in the past.

"Unlike other sports that have only one or two major tournaments a year, there are tennis events almost every week," she said. "So it is quite normal for us to have joy and disappointment together after a few years. That is the uniqueness of tennis."

Li has no misconceptions about the state of tennis in China right now. Although she and many of her teammates like Zheng Jie and Yan Zi, who paired to win the women's doubles bronze, have advanced the sport considerably in China, Li knows there is still a lot to do before China is taken seriously in international tennis.

"I know we have drawn a lot of attention. But we are just at the beginning of the road," she said. "Check out our men's side. We are still way behind the US and Russia."

Li is not too sentimental about her Olympic performance, but she has much stronger feelings about her roller-coaster ride that brought her to the Beijing Games.

After returning from a rib inflammation that sidelined her for six months, Li reached another peak of her career by winning the Gold Coast in January and reaching the fourth round of the Australian Open. But a painful and untimely injury to her left knee almost spoiled her four years of preparation for the Olympics.

"When I found out about the injury, I was like 'Oh my God, how could that happen when the Olympics is so close?'"

The Chinese camp tried its best to help Li get back on the court as soon as possible, but the injury turned out to be bad enough to require surgery in the spring.

As she lay in a bed at a rehabilitation center in Germany, Li felt devastated.

"I had come a long way to get there. I was very upset with the injury and I thought I was done."

Her husband and coach Jiang Shan was her only company during her painful three-month rehabilitation. He provided much-needed support.

"We relied on each other. He was always there to support me and I am very, very grateful to him."

But the bad luck was seemingly not over for Li. For her first match in Beijing she was drawn against Kuznetsova, the world No 3 and former US Open winner whom she had beaten only once.

"I thought it was over," Li said with a laugh. "I thought it would be another one-and-out tour."

But against the odds, Li overcame the Russian in straight sets, going on to beat higher-ranked players like Williams.

Despite her shining achievements, Li, known for her explosive temper and sore relationship with the Chinese Tennis Association, found herself embroiled in controversy once again. A verbal complaint against spectators during her semifinal loss to Vera Zvonareva brought her condemnation from fans and officials alike.

"I thank them for giving me such big support all the way. But I have to say that some of the Chinese spectators don't know tennis courtesy. Sometimes, they cheer in the wrong time, which makes it difficult for players."

Li said she just tried to be herself, and was not worried about being the "model athlete" some people expect.

"In China, if you fit that criteria, you are regarded as a good athlete. Otherwise, you are just a bad one.

"I don't think it should be like that. I want to be free."

That's why she calls American great Andre Agassi her idol, not a very popular choice among current tennis stars who generally prefer the likes of Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal.

"(Agassi) looks so free and unrestrained. He can do anything he wants, like having his ear pierced or a weird hair cut.

"That's exactly what I want to be. For me, tennis is just a job."

Source: China Daily

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