Missouri Valley / St. Louis

Bohan Li Captains Long-Running Chinese Tennis League

Josh Sellmeyer | May 06, 2022

In honor of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month occurring in May in the U.S., check out this USTA St. Louis feature on Bohan Li, who was born and raised in China.


After strong stints at both Clayton High School and St. Louis College of Pharmacy (STLCOP), Bohan Li took a seven-year hiatus from tennis competition to start a family and establish his pharmaceutical career. Li’s father — who wanted to play alongside his son and grandchildren — urged Li to join him in the Chinese Tennis League.


Li, 33, agreed and had a blast participating in the league that was created well before he was even born. The Chinese Tennis League — participants simply call it the Sunday Tennis League — was formed in 1980 by Henry Chien. Some of the competitors who played in the 1980s and ‘90s still participate today. Players gather at Forest Lake Tennis Club in Chesterfield on Sunday evenings from 6:30 to 9:00 p.m. to play doubles with a variety of partners.


That system is much the same as when the Chinese Tennis League was founded 42 years ago, as the league has always taken place at Forest Lake on Sunday nights. Currently the Chinese Tennis League runs from the beginning of September to the end of May. Doing so supports Forest Lake during some off-peak months as a courtesy for the club’s unwavering commitment to the league throughout the decades.


While the well-organized league typically filled all eight courts at Forest Lake and featured a total roster of 150 players, the Covid-19 pandemic caused a dramatic deterioration. With the threat of it folding and no one wanting to take on the captaincy role, Li stepped up to the plate two years ago to salvage the historic league.


“With tennis clubs struggling already during the pandemic, I felt like it was my obligation to keep it going,” Li said. “Because that’s also the same year my dad got a brain tumor, and he passed away. So I felt like that was my connection to him. He got me into this league. I wanted to keep it alive. I took over the captain duty of it and just tried to get as many people playing as I can.”


Though only 20 players participated during the pandemic and just two or three courts got filled each Sunday, Forest Lake generously remained open for the league. The Chinese Tennis League now routinely fills four to six courts. Li rents out two of the remaining courts to teach tennis lessons to kids.


Li Learns Tennis


Li was born in China and lived there until he was 9. His family then moved to Japan for two and a half years before migrating to St. Louis on July 3 when Li was 12 years old. Li speaks English and Mandarin and can speak and understand a bit of Japanese, too.


Both his parents worked at Washington University in St. Louis. One of their colleagues taught tennis on the side — much like Li does now — and he got Li a racquet and showed him the basics. Too young to stay at home by himself, Li would hang out and play on the computer at WashU’s Becker Medical Library all day while his parents worked. With a newfound hobby, Li would also head to the racquetball courts and hit against the wall for hours.


“I was pretty athletic,” Li said. “We grew up really poor in China and Japan. We lived minimalistically. In Japan, I found a bike in a dumpster and biked for two years. I played soccer and basketball. That’s all we had was one ball, and we’d just kick it around. … Tennis is an amazing sport. All you need is a racquet and a ball, and you can have fun.”


Li took some lessons after hitting for a year on his own to better learn the game. He proceeded to have a four-year varsity career at Clayton High School and attended STLCOP, which didn’t have a men’s tennis program at the time. During Li’s sophomore year, he and two freshmen decided to form a team. The college hired a coach and quickly developed into a full NAIA program.


After playing college tennis and graduating from STLCOP, Li and his wife had three kids. Li worked as a traditional pharmacist for four years before becoming a medical science liaison, where he talks to doctors about data. He’s been with his current company — Tokyo-based Astellas Pharma — for about a year.


Li hardly played any tennis during this stretch of his life. With his children getting old enough to start the sport, Li began hitting some balls to shake off the rust.


“I missed it. I missed it a lot,” he said. “I was very competitive in college and high school — too competitive and too emotional about it. Now I enjoy playing just for the fun of it and getting some exercise. It’s great exercise for anybody at any age. You see 80- to 90-year-olds playing. One day I want to be like that. I want to be 90 and still able to play tennis.”


Six months after joining the Chinese Tennis League with his father, Li jumped on a USTA St. Louis team. Last year, Li and a tight-knit group of friends decided to band together and form a strong 4.0 men’s team. The squad rolled to a perfect regular-season record. The team kept that undefeated streak intact through districts and sectionals to advance to USTA Nationals in Surprise, Arizona.


“It was a blast,” Li said. “We had so much fun at Nationals. It was definitely one of the best tennis experiences I’ve had in my life. It was a good group of guys.”


Li plays on two USTA mixed doubles teams and participates in several of the USTA St. Louis mixed doubles tournaments. In addition to playing, Li spends a lot of time coaching. He got his start there during the pandemic when his daughter — who Li said is “super tiny” — was getting picked on while playing with bigger, rougher boys in the neighborhood.


“They were throwing rocks at each other, riding bikes like a bike gang,” Li said. “She would come home crying every other night because she got hurt or someone was being mean. One day, she came home crying. I’m kind of sick of this. I went out there, grabbed all the boys and said, ‘Let’s go to the tennis court. I’m going to teach you how to play tennis.’”


Li, his daughter and six of the neighborhood boys began to form a bond through tennis. The initial lessons went so well Li elected to rent a court at Forest Lake on Friday nights to keep the clique humming.


“Now they’re all best friends and she’s the queen of the group,” Li said. “Everybody respects her because they don’t want their tennis coach to be mad at them.”


All-New Summer Academy


Word spread throughout the neighborhood, with 20 total children jumping in on Li’s lessons. That number has exploded to nearly 70 interested players, with Li having to turn many of them down. With so many kids wanting to learn the sport, Li decided to launch Top Performance Tennis Academy, an all-day tennis and fitness camp that will run for the first time this summer.


The idea stemmed from a recent trip to Club Med in Florida, where Li took his talented 9-year-old neighbor who has won some 12 & Under USTA tournaments. Li observed and learned from the club’s philosophy of getting players as many on-court hours as possible and mixing in fitness, too, with participants making tremendous strides in just one week.


He is going to put their program — four hours of tennis and two hours of fitness each day split up by a lunch and mental break — to the test in St. Louis with his summer academy. Li’s academy will start June 6 and run through mid-August at Saint Louis Priory School in Creve Coeur. Players can sign up for just one week or the entire 10-week academy if they choose.


Li said he is charging as little as he can — enough to cover the cost of court rentals as well as coaches working the camp. Any remaining funds will go toward paying the full cost for kids from underserved areas to participate.


“I really want to provide tennis to people who can’t afford it — the underserved community where kids want to play tennis but can’t,” Li said. “That’s my ultimate mission.” 

The Top Performance Tennis Academy is fully nonprofit, and Li said donations from organizations are appreciated. He received grant funding from USTA St. Louis for his academy. To learn more about the TPTA or to register to participate, contact Li via email at TPTAcademySTL@gmail.com. To apply for USTA St. Louis grants, click here.

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