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TALK ASIA

Interview with Li Na

Aired June 8, 2011 - 06:30:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


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ANJALI RAO, CNN ANCHOR: She's the pride of China. Li Na has become a hometown hero after winning the 2011 French Open and becoming the first ever Chinese tennis player to win a grand slam tournament.

A 12-year veteran of the pro circuit, the 29-year-old's victory is expected to provide a massive boost to the sport in her home country, while she sets her sights on her next big challenge, Wimbledon.

This week on "Talk Asia", we bring you a special encore presentation of our interview with Li Na, which was filmed last year after her impressive performance at the 2010 Australian Open.

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RAO: So you're now fresh off the back of your Aussie success, where you beat Venus Williams. What was it like for you coming from kind of an underdog position to beat somebody like her?

LI NA, CHINESE TENNIS PLAYER: Yes. Actually, I was like - before the match, I never feel like nervous or something. I just feel exciting. I can - it's my show time. Yes. That's also all I think about. And after match, I feel so, so exciting. But I know in the next day, I have to play Serena.

RAO: Describe for me what was going through you when you hit that winning shot against Venus.

NA: I was 40-15, two match point, I lose. I was like Oh, my God, what do I do now? And then I was hitting many shot. I got match point. I was looking up at the sky. I was like, "Please, let me win this point. Only one point. Doesn't matter. I can win after or not. I just want one point". And then, I was like, try the ball. And I was like, ok, come on, right now right here. And afterwards, I was feeling - I wanted to cool down, you know? I didn't want to jump, but I don't know why, I just jumped so high. I never feel like I can jump high like that.

RAO: You then took on Serena, as you say. But you lost to her in the semis. How did it feel for you, going out of the tournament at that point?

NA: I mean, actually, I was feeling - this was a great match. Also, against her, nothing to lose. You just play your best tennis. And also I just went on to the court I saw many China fans take the national flight. And I was like, "OK, not bad". And also a little bit, OK, I play a great match, but I live the set because I lose the match. Yes, I only come to the semi-final. Actually, I want the final or maybe I can win in tournament, but she stopped me.

RAO: Did you learn anything from playing against her.

NA: I think, because I play her many times before. So, I know whether she play for the game or just beginning, she's not play like normal match against me. Maybe Venus tell her something. So she changed it a little bit. So, just beginning of the match, I was feeling like - I was thinking about why she played this like - not like normal game. And I saw Venus was in the box, so I said, "OK, I know now why".

RAO: Sisters.

NA: Yes, sisters.

RAO: Yes. You've never reached a grand slam final before. Is this your year?

NA: Hopefully yes. Yes, I mean, also this time only one step. I can get at the final, but, I mean, I was trying my best tennis already, so hopefully I can have a chance to play a final like French Open or Wimbledon, or U.S. Open.

RAO: You've got high hopes. Your compatriot, Zheng Jie also did well at the Aussie Open. Do you think that you can both build on that momentum, or was it a one-off?

NA: No, I was - that's why I was so exciting after I beated Venus. Because I know this was special day for us and also for China tennis. Because at the same time to have two player come to semi-final, I mean, it's not easy for Asia country.

RAO: The two of you are often mentioned in the same sentence. Do you get on with each other? What's your relationship like?

NA: Actually, before, if we are staying on the National Team, we are saw every day. We actually have practice together, but now we just only can see in the tournament. So, if you say, "Hi, how are you? What are you eat?" You know in China, it's always like - if you have meeting always ask, "What do you eat?" or something. So, we just found a good restaurant, and then we can (INAUDIBLE).

RAO: Oh, that's great.

NA: Yes, because I would like to eat Chinese food, so I was looking around the tournament. I always found Chinese restaurant, you know?

RAO: Is there no rivalry between you? I mean, you know, when you see her do well, does it - are you happy for her or do you just feel more pressure on yourself?

NA: Actually, I was happy for her. I would like to say good for her. Congratulations for her. I never stay in (INAUDIBLE) because tennis you have to play. You couldn't like only sit down and they'll give you the point.

RAO: Yes. I know, unfortunately.

NA: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

RAO: Chinese Women's Tennis is coming on so fast. Where are the guys?

NA: Actually, this was - many people ask me this question. They always ask her - now we only can see the Chinese women, where are the men? I would like to say, I would trust in - also, I will believe between the five years, for sure to have a Chinese guy come to top 50. I mean, they are working so hard, also. Because in the winter training time, I was in Xao Min (sp) with National Team. So, I saw a lot a lot good player, like in juniors - like young girl, young boy.

So I was feeling, yes. Maybe after three years, like China may be like Russia or America - that many players come to play tournament.

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RAO: You're married to your coach. How does that work?

NA: I was a little bit tired. Tired? What do you do, tired? So I was feeling like, what's going on right now?

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DAVID SHOEMAKER, PRESIDENT, SONY ERICSSON WTA TOUR: I think in terms of young women, particularly now, after what Li Na and Zheng Jie have done. The one sport to aspire to in China, for a woman, is clearly tennis.

KIRSTEN FISHER: WOMEN'S TENNIS ASSOCIATION: In China, but in countries all over the world, when you have someone from your own country at the top, it inspires you.

SHOEMAKER: It's hard to really put my finger on just how spectacular it's been. When we look at things like our website - spikes like 700 percent in unique visitors. Or on our social networks - 1100 percent spikes in the number of traffic, the commentary. That sort of stuff is just really stupefying.

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RAO: Certainly, this country has plenty of tennis fans now. You know, thanks to you and also thanks to Zheng Jie. You're known here, both of you, as the golden flowers. What does it mean to you to have the love of your country behind you?

NA: Yes, actually, I love my country. And also, right now, you can see everywhere is Chinese. So we play the tournament on tour, many fans to come on the court say, "Good luck" and "Well done" and if I have time, maybe we can have like for dinner or something, you know? So I was feeling now much, much easier the life. Because if you go everywhere, they just come and say OK, how are you? Or something now. Like before, you just play the tennis and then you didn't have people around with you, you know?

RAO: A number of changes to the sporting arena happened here after the Olympic Games. Because one of the things that you had to do was give 65 percent of your winnings to the government.

NA: Yes, yes.

RAO: Did that hurt?

NA: Actually, if they say, "OK, you have the prize money, but you have to give back to our government 65 percent". Many people think about this is too much. But you have to lure China away, because they pay a lot for you. They pay travelling, they pay coach, they pay hotel, they pay ever tying for you. You don't have any pressure, even if you don't play good tennis or if you lose first round, you still get the money in your pocket. So, nothing. I mean, everyone was on the - oh, are you crazy to take 65 percent for the government. I said, "No, I'm not stupid".

Yes, because, I mean, they pay a lot for you, so you have to come back for them. This is like the normal way.

RAO: So then, how come you wanted to leave the state system?

NA: Actually, right now, I'm still a national team player. Just after Olympics, you know, (INAUDIBLE), from the -- the boss for federation - she say, we can have the two choice - stay with National team, or you can have your team around with you. You can choice. So, I was choice the second one, because after, if I'm retired, I would be the coach or manager on that matter, and I have more experience to tell the player which way for you is the best way. Because I didn't want to only one way until end of my finish. Yes, so.

RAO: You still, though, have to give 12 percent of your winnings to the government. And it's a lot less than 65 percent, but still, do you not just go, "Hey, why should I? I won this match, I've got this busted ligament, not you".

NA: You know, actually China will still find the Western way. Because a government - they give you a lot of help. And now it just come back a little bit. I mean, why? I mean, I would love to do that.

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RAO: Now, you began playing competitive badminton, but at the age of eight, you switched to tennis.

NA: Yes.

RAO: And I know that you say that you were sort of forced into it by, you know, sports officials here, and also by your parents. What do you remember of that time?

NA: Yes, actually, you know my father before was badminton player. So that's why I was playing badminton from six years old. And he just wanted I can play - I can get the champion in China. But, after I play two years in badminton, the coach say, "OK, you play - looks like play tennis, can you change?" And you know, like, 20 years ago, the tennis in China not so famous. So, many people, they didn't know what is tennis.

So I just talk to my family and I say the coach is say maybe I can change to tennis. "Tennis? What is tennis?" Before, in China, we did not have a hot court. So, like Chinese clay court, not like really clay. So, if I was like to the court, I had to walk in the knee or somewhere, you know?

But I was the cry - talk to my mom, "Mom, I was the pain here". "Go, keep playing, don't worry". I was like, "Oh, my God". So, but then I was young, so I didn't think about too much, but now I can say my knee, "Oh, the mark from"-

(LAUGHTER)

NA: Yes, so now I was a little bit scared because I couldn't wear the skirt, you know?

RAO: When you were a kid and training to do this, how did that compare to what your other friends were doing?

NA: Yes, I was like - I was feeling so sad, because every day I have to wake up early, practice one time, and then go to school. After finishing school, I have to go back to tennis again, and then after tennis, I have to homework. Yes, so I was feeling like my day was totally busy. I didn't have time to play. So, every second day, I was back to school they always say, "Oh, last night was so funny, I was play with a friend". And I would say this was my dream, because I never have time to play with my friend. I feel like my whole life only tennis.

RAO: Yes. You're married to your coach. How does that work, seriously? Because you've got to have, you know, arguments about playing style and things like that, especially when you're coming off a match when you lose. How does it work?

NA: Because we know each other, so, before it was like OK, boyfriend, husband, and then coach. But for us, even beyond the line, we never talk about tennis. If we are on the court, we never talk about other life. Yes. So, also before, I was asking him come to coach me. I was feeling about OK, if I'm tired or I'm lazy, I can rest, but no. Totally not.

And I say, "Oh, I was a little bit tired". "Tired? What do you do, tired?" So, I was feeling like, what's going on right now? So, yes. I will say he was a good coach and he doesn't matter who is on the court. Doesn't matter if it was a wife or something, he just want to do - OK, we have to plan today. We have to finish the plan, and then we can leave it on the court.

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RAO: You are portrayed as a rebel. You know, you've got a tattoo, you dye your hair different colors, and you're very outspoken. Do you think of yourself as being a rebel?

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RAO: So, you're famous for your, you know, ultra-quick moves around the court, and, of course, your ground stroke. How much practice goes into perfecting that?

NA: Actually, right now, every day only one hour for tennis. And then, but I will do a lot for fitness. Because, right now, I mean, I play many tennis already, so I don't need to play a lot for tennis. So I just want to keep my body stronger so I do a lot for fitness.

RAO: Do you have to be on any sort of special diet?

NA: Not really.

RAO: You can eat anything you like and you can still do what you do and be really good at it?

NA: Yes, actually before, yes. But now I have official come with me, so I was a little afraid to go to a restaurant right now, because he always say, "No, this not good for your body".

RAO: How much do you suffer from injuries?

NA: I have very, very bad injury for the knee. Yes. I do many times for the operation. Yes. And then, I mean, it was tough for me. After operation back to the court. And then you didn't know what you do, and then you didn't trust yourself. You didn't have that many confidence to play match. But, after, the coach, my team, gave me a lot of (INAUDIBLE) and also they never give up on me.

RAO: I imagine that there would be plenty of Chinese children watching this and looking at you going, "I want to be the next Li Na".

NA: Yes. I mean, I was the so exciting to have like both player come to you same time in semi-final. So I think this was good for both player and also good for China tennis. I mean, oh, for sure, right now many children think about - Ok, maybe someday they can play semi-final also. So, I was feeling more confident, maybe someone they would think, "OK, someday I can play better than her. I can beat her also."

RAO: You are portrayed as a rebel. You know, you've got a tattoo, you dye your hair different colors, and you're very outspoken with the media as well. Do you think of yourself as being a rebel?

NA: Actually, no. I didn't think about. Yes. Because maybe another people think about Chinese and they be like same - they all speak the same, they all do the same thing, they all do everything like (INAUDIBLE) or something. But sometimes I was feeling like, if someone -- I didn't - how do you say, like double face? I hated that. If I want something, I just speak.

RAO: Your tattoo has been on show on the court recently.

NA: Yes.

RAO: What's the story behind this?

NA: Actually, because I with my husband was 12 years already. So, I was do tattoo in 2001. I just wanted to make sure you have this long time for the (INAUDIBLE) or something. Actually, I want to do one more in the seat, like for his name. But he say, no, no, it's trouble for you.

RAO: Nice.

(LAUGHTER)

NA: So I say, "OK, forget".

RAO: Well, you know, it's always good to think ahead, I suppose. You know, you really helped cement this rebellious reputation at the Beijing Olympics when you turned around to the Chinese fans and you said "Shut up". Obviously, people here didn't really like that.

NA: Yes. Actually, it was bad experience. Because I was placed in the final. Of course, every player was nervous. But I was talked to the chair umpire like four or five times. I say, "they can now not between the point". So I was - come to replay to the chair umpire, but they didn't listen. I know they want I can play good tennis. They want I can play final or win the gold medal. I want also, but I was nervous. I was feeling like, please, I just want to play tennis. I just want a quiet between the point.

But, I mean, you have nice time, I will come to you and talk to the chair maybe five, six, or seven times or maybe 20 times. Yes, I would never say this word to the fans. I mean, I know it's bad for him and also bad for me, because fans for the players are like, how do you say, sponsor. I couldn't do that for the fans. So, after that, I learned this was very, very bad for me. It was a very bad experience.

RAO: What were they saying?

NA: They - I was to keep smash. They just say, "killing her, killing her" like so loud, you know? And also, I was hit every shot, they just say the same word and then - the sense is not bad. I mean, they just really want I can win this match, I know. But, yes, maybe next time I have more experience. I know I have more replay to say "please quiet, please quiet" you know?

RAO: You did say it, though, in English. And one of the things that people here didn't like was that they thought, "Oh, OK, she's gone Western on us". Why did you say it in English?

NA: Actually, you know, I don't know why. I just like replay come to the English, you know. Maybe the other team was Western and also I was a player on tour, so you didn't really have like - I think in English - say something easier. Yes. So, if I have time to think, I would never say this word, but, because I was so angry, so nervous, so that's why I said. Yes. I don't know why.

RAO: How long do you see yourself sticking with tennis at that top level?

NA: I would like to say now I was very enjoy the life right now. So I would think - I hope I can play as long I can. Yes. And this right now is feeling - I still can play good tennis. So, maybe another two or three years.

RAO: Two or three years, that's it?

NA: Yes, because I like children. So hopefully, after, I can have my baby.

RAO: I hope you get everything you wish for. Na, this was great. Thank you very much.

NA: Thank you so much.

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