BY GABRIELLE GUZ
Two days before her International Tennis Hall of Fame induction in Newport, Rhode Island, Li Na, the first Asian-born inductee, spent her time mentoring young players who play at Leif Ericson Park at the Sutton East Tennis Club in Manhattan on July 18.
The players came from the City Parks Foundation’s tennis program, which provides free instruction to around 6,000 children each year in over 36 parks throughout the five boroughs. The program is tailored for varying tennis abilities, from beginning to advanced.
According to Mike Silverman, the director of sports at the foundation, Thursday’s cohort of young players had been trained at Leif Ericson Park in Bay Ridge.
Na, who is from Wuhan, China, is a two-time Grand Slam champion and former world No. 2 tennis player. She first started playing at eight years old. At that time, she said, tennis was an uncommon sport in her country, and it was only when she became a first-time Grand Slam singles champion at the French Open in 2011 that millions of people in China recognized a tennis superstar in their midst.
“Every once in a while, we have the great fortune of having legendary tennis players [like Li Na] drop in to our program,” Silverman said. “This gives the kids a chance to meet them, to learn from them, to even hit some balls with them … Li Na has been an amazing ambassador for the game for many years.”
He continued, “Becoming an inductee to the Hall of Fame is the ultimate honor in tennis.”
As part of the event, the young players asked Na about her career. One of the volunteers wondered about some of the challenges Na had faced and how she managed to persevere through them.
Na explained that she didn’t always enjoy the sport, especially in her early years, when her coaches were often rather strict and no one truly believed in her tennis abilities.
But she never gave up and always tried her best to believe in herself.
“It’s not only about beating an opponent, ” Li Na told the young people. “The most important thing is that today is better than yesterday.”
Justin Chong, a 13-year-old boy, started at CityParks Tennis at just eight years old. He first fell in love with the sport when he watched his brother train at the United States Tennis Association, another nonprofit organization that promotes the sport.
Later, Chong’s parents came across an online link to CityParks Tennis, which they swiftly urged him to join. Now, he is looking forward to fostering his skills, earning a sports scholarship and getting into a good college in several years.
At Thursday’s event, he was chosen to participate across the court from Na, in a quick demonstration for the young players.
“To have someone of that calibre be here, it’s an honor,” Chong said. “I think it’s very inspirational for all of us. And it shows that if you work really hard, you could achieve great things.”
To learn more about CityParks Tennis, visit cityparksfoundation.org.