May 16, 2012
STANFORD, Calif. - The southern Chinese city of Guangzhou is framed by Baiyun - the White Cloud Mountain - and the South China Sea. In between, 12 million people frame their own lives with countless dreams and heartbreak.
In this mass of humanity, the true soul of the city cannot be found among the factories, sweatshops, or shipyards. No, you must look beyond the shadows cast by the steel and glass skyscrapers that reluctantly share the grid with the ancient stone temples of the Pearl River Delta.
This is particularly true in the nook of the city that finds the Li house.
It was Christmas morning, 2010, when the muted glow of the rising sun filtered into the living room, brightening the deep red of the wooden walls.
A thin trail of smoke and the smell of incense wafted gently from a small Buddhist shrine against one wall, shared by framed scrolls of Chinese calligraphy reflecting Buddhist sayings and words of kindness.
All was calm when Veronica Li sat down in front of the piano. She closed her eyes ... and began to play.
* * *
If Li Jian could see his daughter now, he would undoubtedly be proud. Veronica is a senior at Stanford and the captain of the Cardinal tennis team, which takes the court Thursday in Athens, Ga., in an NCAA round of 16 match against Northwestern in a quest for its second national championship in three years.
Veronica graduates in June with a degree in political science, with an emphasis on comparative political systems and a special focus on the U.S and China. As part of her co-term program, she's also working toward her master's in sociology, and needs only two more quarters to earn that degree as well.
By then, she'll be long done with tennis, a sport that conjures a variety of emotions in Veronica. On one hand, she savors the few remaining moments she'll have with her seven teammates.
"The only thing we're united by is the common bond of tennis," Li said. "We're so different. I remember the class of '11 would say, `If it wasn't for tennis, we would never be friends.' But, you know, we are. And not only are we friends, but we're teammates. And, in a lot of ways, that's a stronger bond than friendship, because we go through so much together."
That's the beauty of college tennis. Players arrive as individuals, having never concerned themselves with the fortunes of others, or paid attention to who is playing on the court next to them.
Now, it means everything - the encouragement, the well-timed shouts of support before critical points. That's where they gather their strength.
"I've found much more reason to lay it on the line for my teammates, for my coaches, and for my school," Li said. "When I'm out there playing a match and my teammate's next to me ... seeing them fight is very inspirational. And regardless of how they're doing, I know I'm fighting for them. It's like my motivation is right in front of me. Doing something for yourself is never as great as doing something greater than yourself."
On the other hand, Li, who plays No. 5 or No. 6 singles, is ready to move on. She describes her relationship to the sport as "love-hate."
"I'm very much looking forward to the fact that this is the last week of training, ever," Li said. "I don't think anyone grasps the enormity of that for me. One more week at NCAA's and I'm completely done with all of it, and that's a really cool thing."
Tennis has its place in Li's life, but that place has been harder to justify in her mind, especially on a campus that offers so many other opportunities. At a recent lunch meeting with friends, she learned that one may have found a way to eradicate cancer cells without killing off healthy ones, and another is designing a system to supply clean water to the poor in Bangladesh.
"It's just amazing being around all sorts of people who are driven to change the world," Li said. "But when I do a cost-benefit analysis of my time and energy, I realize I spend half my day playing tennis and the other half tired from playing tennis. It's been a struggle."
* * *
Veronica chuckles as she recounts the reasons why she first picked up a racket. It was in Arcadia, California. She was 8.
Her mother, Victoria Song, moved to the United States to establish her own software company, and insisted on bringing Veronica, so she could learn English and experience what the U.S. had to offer.
What Veronica experienced was a lot of free time. Her private school in China began its day at 8 a.m. and ended at 5 p.m., with two hours of homework to follow -- and that was second grade. But in Southern California, her typical school day ended at 1:30.
Idle time was one factor in her introduction to tennis, and a lack of confidence was another.
"I was too nice as a kid," Veronica said. "I was a really big pushover. When I used to go play with my friends, they used to take all of my toys, and I'd totally be fine with it. `If you want it that badly, you can have it.'"
That attitude didn't go over well at home.
"You can't just let people walk all over you," Victoria told her daughter. "You're going to fail in life."
The answer ... was tennis. There was nowhere to hide on the court. There was no help to be had in the middle of a match. There was no one to pick up the pieces if something went wrong.
"She enrolled me in tennis to get me to fight for myself, and learn how to stand up for myself when I'm out there alone on the court," Veronica said. "That was very much a struggle because that was not my personality. I was the least competitive person I knew."
Veronica began with afternoon clinics and then took private lessons. She improved quickly. Very quickly.
* * *
Li Jian was the chief operating officer for a successful Chinese real estate development company and at the height of his earning power when he put it all aside, leaving his job and moving to the United States to watch over Veronica for two years.
By 14, she was essentially a full-time tennis player. Veronica was taking classes online and enrolled at the International Tennis Academy in Delray Beach, Fla. Actually, Delray Beach, described as the "Drug Recovery Capital of the U.S." for its large number of halfway houses, was mostly a way station for Veronica as she played in junior tournaments around the country.
But that didn't really matter to Jian. He simply wanted to be a dad again.
"He had so much going for him in China and knew no one in the United States," Veronica said. "He barely spoke English. He would leave all that to come and support me so I could do what I love. That's something I failed to appreciate at the age of 14."
Even with Jian living in Delray Beach, Veronica's travel schedule - nine months out of the year - didn't offer much opportunity for a close father-daughter relationship. But Jian was content to provide whatever support he could, even in uncomfortable surroundings.
But then, that was nothing new for Jian, who didn't mind a little discomfort. After all, he grew up under communism, and endured the Cultural Revolution and Mao Zedong's forceful insistence on a national rejection of capitalism.
Still, Jian grew up his own man. A charismatic, yet softspoken figure with a grand smile and keen sense of humor, Jian excelled in just about everything he tried. A fine athlete in his own right, Jian set a college track school record in the 400-meter hurdles.
"He had no guidance from his parents," Veronica said. "For him to be able to get to where he was, was incredible."
A natural leader with a sharp mind and a wise outlook, Jian embraced what the world had to offer. Soon, his daughter would do the same.
* * *
Veronica longed for a professional tennis career and a life in the game, but that desire didn't answer the questions her mother posed years ago. Was her mom right? Did tennis change Veronica? Did she learn the life lessons the game was suppose to teach?
Was she tough enough?
Veronica learned the answer in a way she never anticipated - in a loss.
On the morning of her second round match of the 2007 Junior Wimbledon tournament, Li awoke with a 104-degree fever. Playing her morning match was out of the question, and getting out of bed at any time seemed just as unrealistic.
But poor weather and Wimbledon seem to go hand in hand and the match was held up by rain, which worked to Li's advantage. By the time it began, the time was 10 p.m. and Li had dragged herself onto the court without warming up.
Li felt weak and cold in the beginning, but her senses were sharp as she took on Serbia's Bojana Jovanovski. She vividly remembers the crispness of the grass courts as she ran, and the smell of the freshly cut lawn, the controlled bursts of applause and cheers.
Though vaguely aware of her heaving and choking during points, the physical sensations faded for Li as the match went on, replaced by a dimension of mental focus seemingly unknown to her until then.
Jovanovski won the first set, but Li fought back to win the second, 7-5.
"It was the enormity of the moment," Li said. "Somehow, the sickness and pain became less important. I knew I could still go out there and play the best tennis of my life."
The match came down to a third-set tiebreaker, won by Jovanovski, 10-5. But it didn't dampen the spirits of Li.
"Somehow, you steel yourself and push through and fight it out," Li said. "And when you do, you believe that you're stronger than you ever thought possible."
* * *
Jian was a fighter himself. It wasn't long after his daughter's Wimbledon "triumph" when he learned he had liver cancer.
Before that, she never really appreciated their time together - at least not in a sense of truly valuing the time that they had. But with the diagnosis, Veronica felt a shift of priorities inside her and felt the urge to reconnect with her father.
Still, Jian had returned to China and Veronica had gone off to Stanford. And there they existed, on opposite ends of the earth, until the phone call before Christmas from her mother.
"Your dad's not doing so well," Victoria said. "We're really worried about him. The doctors don't know if he'll make it through the year. Just keep that in mind when you come back this time. Try to really tend to him and take care of him. Do the best you can."
The urgency of the call prompted Veronica to sit down and write her father a letter. And it was a long one. Everything that she had always wanted to say came pouring out from pen to paper. She told him how he taught her the most important things in life: how to be herself, and how to love.
She told him what he meant to her and how she finally appreciated all the sacrifices he made on her behalf. And she told him perhaps the most important thing of all: Thank you.
Veronica sealed the letter in an envelope and packed it safely as she headed for the airport for her flight across the Pacific.
* * *
The sun warmed her face as the notes rolled off her fingertips in the empty living room that Christmas morning.
Her father had a favorite song he used to play on the piano - "Sunset at Newport." It remained a treasured memory of Veronica's from her childhood in China. Now, she was playing it for him, by memory.
The song always had a sad quality to it, speaking of sunsets past and of a longing for happier days. The sounds resonated through the house and settled upon her father's ears.
Jian raised himself out of bed and, bracing himself, descended step by step down the stairs.
When Veronica released the final key, and the note hummed into silence, she slowly opened her eyes and saw her father in the doorway, tears running down his face.
No words were spoken as he made his way across the room and sat down next to his daughter.
"I haven't heard that song in so long," he said quietly.
"Play it again."
* * *
When it was time to leave, Veronica handed her father the letter. He didn't open it in front of her, and that was fine. But she knew that in written words and a heartfelt song, that all was right, no matter what was to come. The things that needed to be said, indeed were said.
On May 9, 2011, with his daughter by his side, Li Jian died.
When Veronica returned to Stanford, just in time for her team's NCAA tournament run, her teammates made red bracelets and wore them the rest of the season. Inscribed was the date of his passing and, on the other side, the word "persevere."
Whenever she takes the court, Veronica continues to wear the band in memory of her father. Consider it a gift to him.
-- David Kiefer, Stanford Athletics