LI NAis the world's second-ranked tennis player, trailing only Serena Williams, a fellow 32-year-old, in the WTA standings. She won the 2014 Australian Open, virtually guaranteeing that she will become the first Chinese player inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. Her athleticism and exquisite shotmaking have helped her win more than $3 million in prize money so far this year, but that pales next to an endorsement empire that will exceed $20 million in 2014.
As a shatterer of stereotypes, however, Li might hold the top global ranking. She's a tattooed, beer-drinking feminist who cracks jokes nonstop—often at the expense of her husband, Jiang Shan—and speaks with bracing candor about everything from her personal flaws to her misgivings about the Chinese sports machine. And she does it all as one of the world's most scrutinized athletes. When she won at Roland Garros in 2011, more than 116 million Chinese fans watched. Her Weibo social-media account has 23 million followers, more than the combined Twitter audience of LeBron James and Kevin Durant.
Before Li's attempt to win her second French Open, which begins on Sunday in Paris, she visited with SPORTS ILLUSTRATED.
When you play these big matches, you take the court knowing that more people will watch you than watch the Super Bowl. How do you wrap your head around that?
LN: In the beginning of my career it was hard, yeah. Then I realized, China has a lot of people. I'm not going to change that. So I better get used to it and try not to think about it.
Apart from winning Grand Slam titles, you're well-known for your jokes. Are you this funny in Mandarin? Or does the difference in languages add to it?
LN: Honestly, I don't think I'm so funny. My friends at home never say I'm funny. In English, people are laughing before I even make the joke. But if you can make people laugh, it's not a bad thing, yeah?
As a junior player you once had a coach who went years without ever complimenting you. What effect did that have?
LN: It hurt me a lot. She never said, "You're good." Actually she said, "You're not good." Other coaches would see me play and say, "You can be top 20 one day." I was like, "No, how can you say that? My own coach doesn't think so." I was with her from when I was 11 until I was 20! I felt like I would have to beat two people to win a match: the opponent and myself. My doubts were so strong.
LN: Wait, listen to this story! Last year I was working with Carlos [Rodríguez, her current coach], and he was asking me why sometimes I punish myself. I told him the story of this other coach, how she never [praised] me. He said, "For your own good you have to talk to this coach, to face her and tell her she hurt you a lot. I don't care that this was more than 10 years ago." Carlos was right. It was a long time ago, but it was still deep in my heart. So I said O.K.
Last year I tried to talk to her, and I was so, so nervous. I said, "You hurt me a lot. Not a little bit—a lot. You almost ruined me. I was 15, 16; now I am in my 30s. I just want you to know."
She told me why she did it. She was trying to improve me. I said, "O.K., I understand. But you still hurt me." She didn't apologize. I didn't say, "It's O.K.," but I felt much better having had this conversation, because I let her know.
But no apology?
LN: No. I think maybe that's not the China way. In so many families the children are doing well, but if there's a test and they're not No. 1, their parents might say, "Look, there's still someone ahead of you." They really push the children.
Do you still have doubts?
LN: Of course! I would like to say I'm always confident, but I would be lying. There are always nervous, uncomfortable moments for all players. How do you handle the situation? Do you do your best? Do you have courage? That's part of tennis.
You've taken on the Chinese system. You have a tattoo. You make fun of your husband in front of a worldwide audience. I think many people see you as independent. Do you see yourself that way?
LN: I don't know. I am a real person. My life wasn't always going straight up.... My dad passed away when I was 14. There were hard times. I retired [in 2002] because I wasn't happy and then decided to come back. I want people to know me not just as a tennis athlete, but as a person.
Are you seen as a rebel in China?
LN: I think journalists [write] stories to try to make themselves more famous. Or make an athlete more famous. I just try to be a real person, not a [rebel].
In your book, My Life, you talk about leaving China's state-run sports system, and you have a line, "Freedom is beautiful." What did you mean by that?
LN: I retired at age 20. I wasn't healthy, and my body was more important than my tennis. I went home and was like, Wow, I don't have to think about winning and losing. I don't have to think about when to wake up or how to train. It was a normal life.
But you came back.
LN: I did. But I did it for me. How do you say it? On my terms.
If you had quit for good, what would you be doing?
LN: [Back then] I was in school studying journalism. But now when I stop, I will be a housewife. That's my dream.
Really? You? The Billie Jean King of China?
LN: My husband has been traveling with me for more than 10 years. He's made so many sacrifices. I am the center for him. After I retire, we'll switch, and he'll be my center.
You'll settle in China?
LN: China. But I'll go where my husband wants. It's all about him.
You're always teasing your husband. I assume he gets you back?
LN: I make jokes in front of thousands of people, but he's not angry because he knows exactly what I mean. I said, "You're lucky that you found me." He said, "No, you're lucky you have a good man." My mom even said, "Be nice to your husband! He's a nice guy!" I was like, O.K.
We met when I was 12 years old [Jiang was a coach in the Chinese tennis system], and we've been together since I was 16—half my life. Amazing, yeah.
When you come to the U.S., what interests you, what amuses you? What do you make of this country?
LN: I like the U.S., but remember, when I was 15 years old, I spent 10 months at an academy in Texas. Nike China sent one boy and one girl to train, and I was the girl. That's where I learned English. I couldn't speak one word. I was so homesick.
How did you like Texas?
LN: I was only at the academy. They didn't let us out. I just remember they wear the jeans and the special hats there.
Do you like tennis?
LN: I didn't used to. Now I do.
What about it?
LN: One thing is the people. I am meeting people from all over the world. But I love the winning. Love the power of myself. Love the life. But tennis is just one part of my life. If the tennis isn't going [well], I can still enjoy my life.
SI: What's your favorite beer these days?
LN: German beer, the Wiessbier. Also Radler. It's beer with 7 Up. Good for the ladies.
That does it for me.
LN: Was I funny?
"In English people are laughing before I even make the joke. But if you can make people laugh, it's not a bad thing, yeah?"
"There are always nervous, uncomfortable moments. How do you handle the situation? Do you have courage? That's part of tennis."
For round-by-round coverage of the French Open from Jon Wertheim and Courtney Nguyen, as well as features on key players, photo galleries and video, go to SI.com/tennis
Photograph by JULIAN FINNEY/GETTY IMAGES FOR WTA
DAVID CALLOW FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (ACTION)
CLIVE BRUNSKILL/GETTY IMAGES