Tennis has been transformed over the last five decades by TV, money, technology, equipment, fashion and politics. But through all of that, the players have remained at the heart of the game. As part of our golden anniversary celebration of the Open era, Tennis.com presents its list of 50 best players—the Top 25 men and the Top 25 women—of the last 50 years. You’ll be able to view the entire list in the March/April issue of TENNIS Magazine.
(Note: Only singles results were considered; any player who won a major title during the Open era had his or her entire career evaluated; all statistics are through the 2018 Australian Open.)
25. Li Na
Years played: 2000–2012
Major titles: 2 (2011 French Open, 2014 Australian Open)
When it comes to sheer numbers, Li may have been the most popular player in tennis history. Each time China’s first top-level tennis star competed in a big Grand Slam match, she was watched by more than a hundred million people across her home country. By the time her career was over, 15 million of them were hitting the courts regularly. There are players that have helped “grow the game,” and then there’s Li—she took the game to another world entirely.
While her nationality made her a pioneer, as a player Li was very much of her generation. An Andre Agassi fan growing up, she was a power-baseliner with a two-handed backhand, and a late bloomer. The talent was always there, in her natural service motion, her heavy topspin forehand and especially her roundhouse two-handed backhand. Yet over the course of her first 10 years on tour, she reached just one Grand Slam quarterfinal.
The turnaround began in 2008, when she broke away from the Chinese National Team and began to work with her own coaches. The following year, she made the quarterfinals at the US Open; in 2010, she did the same at Wimbledon. Then, in 2011, at the French Open, she became the first Asian to win a Grand Slam singles title, at age 29. In 2014, she added an Australian Open title and reached a career-high No. 2. That same year, she appeared on the cover of Time, which named her one of the world’s 100 most influential people.
Li pulled her final surprise in 2014 when she retired at the peak of her powers and popularity. For Chinese tennis, her absence may one day be filled by a player, or hundreds of players, that she inspired. For the pro tours, her absence can still be felt. She was as well-liked by her fellow players as she was by fans, and as skilled with a quote as she was with a racquet. “Age like paper,” she said with a laugh when she was asked about playing into her 30s.
The message of Li’s career was that it didn’t matter how old you were, or where you came from—you could still conquer a world.
Defining Moment: At the 2011 French Open, Li became the first player from Asia to win a Grand Slam singles title. To see her hold up the champion’s trophy in Paris was to see the world get a little smaller and tennis get a lot bigger.
Watch: Li Na on her dream run at Roland Garros run 2011