Long before China had Li Na, its French and Australian Open champion, there was Hu Na, a tall and rangy teenage tennis prodigy from Sichuan.
At 19, she was China’s female tennis champion and a favorite of the Communist party‘s leaders; she often played mixed doubles with the then 65-year-old Wan Li, who later became China’s vice premier.
But on July 16, 1982, a day after arriving in America to compete in the Federation Cup, Hu Na slipped out of her hotel room in Santa Clara, California and disappeared.
Ten days later, her Chinese-American lawyer filed a request for political asylum. It caused a storm: it had only been three years since China and the US had reestablished diplomatic relations.
“I never thought it would make such big news,” said Ms Hu, now 51, on a visit to Beijing to promote an exhibition of her art.
“But I knew I had to take the chance. Back then we only played overseas twice or three times a year and I did not know when I might be back in the US again.”
Ms Hu said she had been inspired by Martina Navratilova, who was 18 when she defected from Communist Czechoslovakia to the US.
“I did not tell anyone about it, not even my parents. I was very worried at the time. I did not know when I would see my parents again. But I wanted to be a tennis professional and my dream gave me the courage to do it,” she said.
Hu Na in1985 at Wimbledon Championships.
Beijing was furious and the Chinese team demanded the US find and return Ms Hu. “We hereby demand the US takes effective measures to find and immediately send her back to our team,” said a statement. Later, the Foreign ministry said the defection was “sure to adversely affect the cultural exchanges between the two countries“.
However, Ms Hu claimed that her parents were not punished for her betrayal. Her grandfather was a men’s’ doubles tennis champion, her father coached the army basketball team in Chengdu and her mother was an official at the Sports Commission.
“I do not think my parents had any trouble. At that time China was opening up and reforming and I had my first letter from them a few months later,” she said. A year after her defection, the Chinese tried to tempt her back saying she would not be prosecuted if she returned.
Ms Hu said she had received an offer from Vic Braden, then one of the world’s foremost tennis coaches, to manage her. “I told him to ask the Chinese Tennis Association and he sent many letters but never got an answer,” she said.
“There was such a big difference between the US and China. There were tennis courts everywhere. And the players wore dresses at the US Open. In China at that time we just had blue shirts and shorts,” she said.
“My parents knew my dream. By the time I was champion of Asia I had no rivals to play with. I wanted to play with Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova,” she said. She played them both, but lost.
Her best championship was Wimbledon in 1985 where she reached the third round, knocking out Annabel Croft. “The next day, even the taxi drivers recognised me because everyone in Britain had watched that match,” she said.
In 1990 her parents were allowed to visit her in the US for the first time. “My mother cried because my skin was so tanned she thought I was ugly,” she said. Eventually her entire family resettled in the US, and Ms Hu was allowed to return to China.
However, her latest visit has been greeted with abuse by Chinese nationalists, who questioned whether a former “traitor” should be allowed back on Chinese soil.
“Who let her in?” wrote one commenter on the Chinese Internet. “How long does the crime of defection last for? It is a provocation to come back for an art exhibition.”
“You bring shame to our country. The motherland does not forbid her from coming back, this shows the tolerance and the progress of the nation; But our countrymen have rejected her, this is how the people judged her,” wrote another, according to a translation on the ChinaSmack website.
Ms Hu said she does not pay any attention to the criticism. “I remember the first time I came back to China there had been such a big change,” she said. “When I was young I would play tennis into the evening and then I would have to walk home for half an hour and there were no lights. It used to be so dark.”
And she praised Li Na for standing up to the Chinese state sports system. “Li Na chose her own way and you can see from the success she had that it was a good thing. I think things have changed now,” she added.