Irrepressible Li lines up doubles date

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Li Na plays a return during her last Wimbledon match in 2014. Li is returning to the All England Club this year where she will partner with Japan's Ai Sugiyama in the invitational doubles.

After enjoying life as a homemaker for more than three years, Grand Slam winner Li Na is back on court, hitting her signature backhand winners again.

To the surprise of young players training at the Beijing International Tennis Center this week, Li joined their hitting practice as the two-time Grand Slam singles champion launched her preparation for a long-awaited return to competition.

Having reiterated she would never come back as a pro after retiring in September 2014, Li will make her exhibition debut in the ladies' invitational doubles at Wimbledon next month.

The 2014 Australian Open and 2011 French Open singles champion will team up with former Japanese pro Ai Sugiyama in the eight-pair doubles draw, which also features legends such as Martina Navratilova, Kim Clijsters and Lindsay Davenport.

The accuracy of Li's shots during a training session on Tuesday looked as sharp as in her prime, with husband and former coach Jiang Shan across the net as her sparring partners. But the fits of laughter reflected a different attitude for the 36-year-old mother of two.

"Their returns are so heavy that I couldn't handle them anymore," a grinning Li said after hitting against two young women at the center.

Li said her time spent with daughter Alisa and son Sapajou, born in 2015 and 2016 respectively, as well as numerous business projects such as a signature tennis academy and a biopic of her career have kept her busy to the point where tennis now is only a pastime.

But she remains as serious as ever when it comes to sharing her expertise with the country's new generation of players.

"Playing tennis well is not just about hitting as hard as you can. It's more about returning the ball in a way you feel comfortable. Once you find the way of your own, the game becomes easier," Li told her young training partners.

Teenagers Cao Siqi and Ma Shuyue, both training fulltime at the center, said Li's presence and words were enlightening.

"Her presence made a difference," said Ma. "For us just entering the entry level of the pro circuit, her knowledge is very helpful in making a smooth transition."

As Li prepares for her exhibition show, five of her compatriots, led by current Chinese No 1 Zhang Shuai and veteran Peng Shuai, have made the ladies' singles main draw at Wimbledon, while five other youngsters are fighting their way in the qualification event.

Retired Zheng Jie stormed her way into the 2008 Wimbledon semifinals, the furthest advance by a Chinese entrant at the tournament since Li reached the last eight in 2006.

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