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University of Chicago Tennis Ace Is Even Better At Another Sport: Ping Pong

By Justin Breen | April 26, 2013 8:40am | Updated on April 26, 2013 2:48pm

HYDE PARK — Linden Li owns a 131-44 career record as a tennis player at the University of Chicago, one of the top programs in Division III — but tennis is not even her best sport.

Li was one of the top junior table tennis players in the United States from age 7 to 12, when she won several national and international titles.

But she gave up pingpong in her early teens to concentrate on tennis, which is much more popular in the United States and provided Li with an opportunity to compete in college.

First-year Maroons coach Jay Tee is glad she made the switch.

"I couldn't even imagine my first year without Linden," Tee said of Li, the only upperclassman on the Maroons, whose regular season ends Saturday. "She's almost like a second assistant coach. She definitely has a maturity about her."

That maturity was on display early on for Li.

As a table tennis standout growing up in Langley, Va., she practiced six hours a day for coach Yinghua Cheng, a famous professional player from China.

By the time she was 10, Li claimed gold medals at the Junior Olympics in singles and doubles and finished 2002 ranked No. 1 in the country.

"The goal was to eventually make the U.S. Olympics team," said Li, 21, who plays No. 2 singles and No. 2 doubles for the Maroons.

That changed when her parents met Hong Ni, the former Chinese women's tennis national team coach.

Ni believed with Li's power and size — she's about 5-feet-10 now — she could become a professional tennis player.

"There was a better chance for her in tennis," said Ni, who owns the prestigious Hong Tennis Training Centre in Gaithersburg, Md. "Table tennis is popular in Europe and Asia, but in America it is not a big sport. She had a big serve and a big forehand, and during high school, I thought she could become a pro in tennis."

But Li said her tennis career started too late for a realistic shot at the pros, and she decided to veer toward the collegiate route.

She said that decision did not immediately please her parents, who wanted her to postpone college to focus on training for a crack at the pro ranks.

"We had a debate, and it was kind of a pity she was unable to focus on tennis training," said her father, Yong Li. "But I'm also glad for her. It was her choice, and as a parent, we fully support her."

Li has been a standout since arriving at the Hyde Park campus.

She's helped lead the Maroons to three straight Division III Final Fours, and she will be graduating with an economics degree. While her future is up in the air, Li said she is considering returning to Ni's center to work as a coach.

"I'm very happy being on the U. of C. tennis team," she said. "My life's not too bad."