Rising Australian tennis player Li Tu's emotional Challenger Tour breakthrough comes weeks after mother's death
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Li Tu collapsed on the Seoul tennis court, with arms and legs outstretched.
After his first tournament win on the ATP Challenger Tour, Tu used his singlet to wipe the tears from his eyes.
Officially it was a singles tournament, but in the 26-year-old's mind, it was doubles. He was playing alongside his mother, Yu Ping Zheng, who died of cancer three weeks before his victory.
"It gave me a lot of strength and a calmness and confidence in a way that I wouldn't regularly have," Tu told ABC Sport.
"I felt a real peace when I was playing.
"I got into the ritual of looking up to the sky before I'd play and I'd feel her with me and during matches sometimes as well.
"We definitely did it together."
Before she died, Tu's mother Yu Ping Zheng had urged her son to go to South Korea to play in three Challenger events. Tu delivered the eulogy at her funeral and was on a flight the following day.
"I decided to get on a flight the day after her funeral and do it for the family, do it for mum," Tu said.
"It was extremely hard, to be honest. It had been such a rush after my mum passed away with organising the funeral and there were a lot of things happening.
"It was the hardest when I was on the plane and I could sit down and absorb everything that just happened."
When Tu reached Kuala Lumpur he called his fiancée, Kimberley, and told her that he wanted to come home.
"I ended up continuing on with the trip and I'm very glad that I did," he said.
Born in Adelaide to parents who emigrated from China, Tu starred in junior tennis, playing alongside Thanasi Kokkinakis in Australia's junior Davis Cup team in 2012.
His future in the sport looked bright but when natural talent wasn't enough to win matches, Tu started to question why he was playing.
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"As a junior I really enjoyed winning and I didn't fall in love with the process or the sport that much," he said.
"I think I was just good at it.
"When I started losing a fair bit, then that would influence my training and I didn't love the training or doing the grind.
"I decided tennis wasn't for me and I went and studied."
Tu completed a Bachelor of Commerce with a major in marketing but found it hard to stay away from the tennis court and started coaching.
"It wasn't until I started coaching and mentoring young kids going through their tennis journey that I re-found my love for the sport.
"Coaching young players helped my perspective on the game."
In 2020, Lu played in the UTR Pro Tennis Series in Australia and won 34 of 36 matches. He made his debut on the main ATP tour in Melbourne in February 2021 and was given a wildcard to the Australian Open, losing in the opening round to experienced Spaniard Feliciano Lopez.
Rather than dwell on the defeat, it inspired Tu to work harder. At the beginning of this year, the right-hander was ranked outside the top 500. His goal for 2022 was to get close to 200.
Tu won lower tier tournaments in Bendigo, Egypt, Tunisia and the USA. During this time, he found it hard to focus due to his mother's deteriorating health. The grieving Tu headed to South Korea in September believing that something special would happen.
"Before I left I actually told [my mother] that I had a strange feeling that I was going to be rewarded if I go, I don't know why but I just feel like something good was going to happen.
"I couldn't really explain why, it's just one of those things," said Tu.
Tu had to win two matches just to qualify for the main draw at the Seoul Challenger event.
He beat higher-ranked Australians Chris O'Connell and James Duckworth in successive matches before a straight sets victory over China's Wu Yibling in the final.
On social media he revealed why it had been such an emotional win. Nick Kyrgios, Kokkinakis, Matt Ebden and Daria Saville were among the fellow players who commented on the post.
"I've received so much support, a lot of people didn't know what was going on with me so it probably a bit of a shock when they found out about my mum," Tu said.
"It means so much to me that so many people have reached out and had me in their thoughts.
"I think the Australian tennis community we can really get around each other."
On the day Tu's mother would have turned 67, his world ranking rose more than 100 places to 190.
"I felt like I could be really focused on tennis and feel like she's on the road with me in a way.
"She would've been absolutely ecstatic."
There was very little time for celebrating. Tu packed his bags and travelled to Busan for another Challenger event, where he lost in the first round while nursing an "emotional hangover".
"It's such a tough sport, you lose every week unless you win the tournament so you need to become an incredible loser," he said.
"I had a massive win and all of sudden that night I'm on a train to the next place, get in at midnight, I'm exhausted and then get my head around the fact that I'm playing in two days.
"It's a rollercoaster. It doesn't really stop unless you take a breather."
There's a break coming up for Tu later next month when he marries Kimberley. They met two years ago on a flight from Sydney to Adelaide.
"A friend linked us up and said 'my friend's on the same flight as you, you should say hello'.
"I was too nervous to say hello so she had to come up and say hello to me.
"I'm usually the emotionally mellow one in our relationship but the last couple of months have been particularly tough for me so she's had to be the emotional rock.
"She's been really supportive I don't think I could've done it without her."
After the wedding, Tu will prepare for the Australian summer and is hoping for another spot in the main draw at the Australian Open.
"Hopefully, I throw myself in the mix but I know it's out of my control."
What he can control is being a role model for younger players. Tu wants his story to lift the spirits of lowly-ranked players who are finding it difficult to cope with the weekly grind of the tennis tour.
"I'd love to be an example to people who are younger and maybe struggling with losses to try and fall in love with the process and the sport because that's what gets you through," he said.
"When people encounter me or hear about my story I just want them to be touched and have a smile on their face."
Li Tu is always thinking of the next tournament, when he'll get there, and how much preparation time he'll have. He's also taking time to toast the triumphs.
"You can have some ups you can have some downs it's just the nature of the sport," said Tu.
"That's why when you do get an up you've really got to take it in and appreciate it.
"The next thing is top 100. This story's definitely not over."
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