NEWPORT, R.I. — Li Na has broken new ground at the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
The 37-year-old former Chinese star on Saturday became the first Asian-born player to be inducted.
She was enshrined along with Mary Pierce of France and Russian Yevgeny Kafelnikov during a lengthy on-court ceremony that followed the Hall of Fame Open semifinals and stretched from sunset into nighttime, forcing grounds’ crew members to scramble and bring in smaller spotlights.
Li became the first Asian to win a Grand Slam tournament, capturing the 2011 French Open in a final that was watched by an estimated 116 million people in her country.
“I did not (know) before I came to the court or it would have made me more nervous,” she said during a mid-afternoon news conference.
“I started (at) about 8 years old, but I hated tennis,” she told the crowd that was sitting in near darkness. “Not bad, at least I’m standing here right now.”
She also captured the 2014 Australian Open after being runner-up twice.
Both semifinal matches Saturday went three sets, prompting the late ceremony for the trio of two-time Grand Slam singles champions.
“The goal is only as worth as the effect required to achieve it,” said Pierce, fighting back tears at the start of her 29-minute speech.
The 45-year-old Kafelnikov was described on his plaque as “one of the most dominant Russian Players of his generation.” He captured the 1996 French Open and three years later won the Australian.
“I know now what it is to be a Hall of Famer,” he told the crowd. “I will carry that responsibility for the rest of my life, and hopefully I won’t disappoint you.”
Predominately a baseline player who reached No. 1 in the world in 2002, he won a gold medal at the 2000 Olympics and helped Russia win the Davis Cup in 2002.
“It means that I did it because of hard work,” he said. “All my success came because I did work hard.”
Walking into the Hall a day before his induction, Kafelnikov was taken back.
“I was really stunned when I was walking upstairs for the first time to see the museum,” he said. “From the tennis records, to the cups, to medals from the Olympics. I cannot describe how emotional I was.”
Pierce, 44, lived her dream by playing the French Open. She did more than that, winning it in 2000. She also captured the Australian five years earlier.
“It was my dream in tennis to hopefully play the French Open after watching it as a young girl on TV,” she said. “Then to actually win it was my dream come true.”
Pierce said she played her final match against Li at the 2006 U.S. Open.
“Look where we are today,” she said, looking at Li, seated to her right.