If talented 16-year-old Xu Shilin, somewhere down the road, becomes the successor to superstar Li Na as the face of Chiense tennis, we will remember a Sunday morning in Wuhan and Beijing as a seminal moment.
Xu was the Chinese player who received the honour of officially opening the stadium court at the Wuhan Open, a WTA Premier event in Li’s hometown that likely never would have seen the light of day if not for her success. At the same time, the catalyst herself was giving a retirement press conference a little over 1,000 kilometres away in Beijing. There were smiles, and tears, and it played to a standing-room only crowd.
Here’s how it played out in real time.
She looked fearless even though this was her first WTA Tour-level match – so unlike the Li of her early years, before she managed to conquer the doubts that chronically plagued her enough to win two Grand Slams. Xu’s opponent, American Alison Riske, was a solid adversary, far more experienced and certainly expected to prevail easily.
But that wasn’t what happened. Xu took a 4-1 lead into the third set before she … succumbed. From afar, it seemed a combination of the head and humidity (it was close to 30C – but it was the same for both players), nerves, the occasion, the honour bestowed upon her, the pressure.
Instead of channeling Li, at that moment Xu was the spitting image of Shuai Peng, who had a nearly identical experience just a few weeks ago at the U.S. Open against Caroline Wozniacki in the biggest moment of her career, and also had to be wheeled off the court.
Who is she? Xu is the recent gold-medal winner at the Youth Olympics, a quarter-finalist at Wimbledon at junior Wimbledon and, by virtue of an ITF ranking system that gives weight to both volume and doubles, the No. 3 junior in the world. She didn’t play either the French or U.S. Open juniors this year. On the WTA Tour, she is ranked No. 507 and won a pair of $10,000 ITF events in Hong Kong a year ago, at age 15.
Xu had to retire against Riske, down 0-5 in the third-set tiebreaker. But she showed a lot of good things and clearly is one to keep an eye on.
Meanwhile, Li said her goodbyes in a press conference in Beijing that lasted about a half-hour. Dressed casually, with minimal makeup, she looked beautiful and at peace with her decision, which in the end was made for her by her wonky knees. She smiled her trademark smile at times, was in tears at times – twice, the same male journalist was so overcome he began to cry, which made Li lose it as well. But most of the time, she was impressively composed.
Here’s video of Li’s presser, with an English voiceover.
“And as for my successor… keep an eye out, they’ll be coming, even better than Li Na.”
Will it be Xu? Only time will tell. But if it is, we will harken back to this extraordinary day.