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Tennis - 12. January 2012.

Li Na’s journey back from the brink

Sydney, Australia
January 8-13, 2012

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Singles - Semifinals

(4) Li Na (CHN) d. (2) Petra Kvitova (CZE) 16 75 62
(3) Victoria Azarenka (BLR) d. (7) Agnieszka Radwanska (POL) 16 63 62

Doubles - Semifinals
(1) Peschke/Srebotnik (CZE/SLO) d. Kops-Jones/Spears (USA/USA) 67(2) 63 105
(2) Huber/Raymond (USA/USA) d. (4) Kirilenko/Petrova (RUS/RUS) 76(6) 64

Defending champion Li Na has advanced to Friday’s final. Earlier this week, the 2011 French Open champ sat down to discuss her tumultuous summer–and how she’s piecing herself back together at the Apia International Sydney.

Li Na thumbs through her Samsung phone — one of her recent endorsement deals — with a mischievous look on her face. The Chinese player, who last year became a global sensation by winning the French Open, giddily passes her phone about the room with a picture plastered on its screen. It’s not of Li, but rather of her husband Jiang Shan — and he’s wearing a long, black-haired wig. A woman’s wig.

Li can barely contain herself. She giggles, her eyes glistening with delight. Two members of the WTA’s communications team, which works week in and week out with Li, laugh along with her. Almost a sisterly laugh. Li Na seems happy.

It’s been a year since the now 29-year-old made a dazzling run in Australia. She came to Sydney and opened 2011 like a firecracker: winning five matches and the title, beating Svetlana Kuznetsova and Kim Clijsters along the way. It was then in Melbourne that she would make a run to the final, losing to Clijsters in three sets, but realizing one thing in the process: that she really could win a grand slam title.

“[Australia] was the first time I was really close to a grand slam; it make me believe that I can really win one,” Li says, recalling her run. “After the final, I had all of this confidence to … keep going for my dream. If you ask a hundred professional players what their dream [is] … it is to win a grand slam.”

Li would realize that dream a few months later when she barreled through the women’s draw at the French Open, taking out Petra Kvitova, Victoria Azarenka, Maria Sharapova and defending champion Francesca Schiavone to win the first singles major in China’s history. She became an instant global sensation.

What should have been a catapulting, career-skyrocketing win instead plunged Li into a hole that she struggled to dig out of for six months. She had suffered the same fate after her Australian Open final run, going 1-5 before finding her feet on the forgivingly soft red clay of Europe.

But this time it was different, Li was a grand slam champion, and she couldn’t find the tennis within herself that had made her world famous. On America’s cement courts, she was falling hard. A dismal 6-5 summer record was punctuated in the worst of ways: a straight-set loss to Simona Halep in the first round of the US Open.

“After Wimbledon I had … so many things outside of the tennis court,” Li says, her right wrist outlined by sweatband tanlines from hours in the sun. “After the dream comes true, I lose myself. I’m not feeling hungry on the tennis court. I just lose the concentration. I couldn’t find my focus.”

Li Na’s dream year had turned into a nightmare. A month later, things got worse.

“You mean in Beijing?” Li asks, clarifying a question that had been posed about her loss to Monica Niculescu in October following the US Open. It was her first match in China since she had become a national hero by winning the French.

Li seems to try to be avoiding talking about it, but she appeases. Yes, in Beijing. What should have been a glorious homecoming for a grand slam champion instead changed into a humiliating 6-4 6-0 drubbing — from the world’s No. 57 player. It was a brutal 81 minutes to suffer through.

“I think so many people was … they wanted me to do well,” she says of her Chinese fans. “I was feeling so many pressures. I was … They say I was so lucky to win a grand slam, that I didn’t beat any good players. That wasn’t true.”

It was then that Li went back to the cold, bare winter streets of Munich, as she has every off season for the past four years, and just focused on tennis. Jiang Shan, her trustworthy companion, husband and coach, put her through drills and training, playing tennis and ignoring the rest of the world. No photo shoots, no expectations.

“I didn’t care about anything [in Munich],” Li explains. “I went to Germany to train. After that, I just needed to rest. I didn’t care about tennis or fitness or anything — I just wanted to relax.”

A few minutes earlier she had had the room in fits of laughter over her husband smirking in a woman’s wig. Now it’s deadly quiet. The communications team watches as Li recounts her fall from grace in 2011, her inner turmoil — at least that of it that she’s willing and able to share — spilled out onto a tape recorder sitting next to her Samsung phone.

At the next question, Li looks to the team for clarification: Is she an introvert or an extrovert? The giggle is back. Her eyes light up again.

“I protect myself, I’m a safe person,” she says, struggling to find words to explain.

Throughout the week in Sydney, Li has cracked jokes in press conference, asking one journalist if she meant to ask Li if her husband is doing well as a mate or a coach.

“For husband he always doing good job. For coach, sometimes I feeling he’s doing some stupid things,” she quipped, cracking up both the press and herself.

Should Li Na win at the Apia International Sydney again, she’ll be the first woman to repeat here since Elena Dementieva did so in 2009 and 2010. But more importantly, she’ll re-capture that warm, summer feeling she had in Australia a year ago, the feeling that helped her realize she really could be the best in the world.

And now Li knows what the view from the top of the mountain looks like: plenty of fans and hopeful endorsees chasing after her. She playfully envisions a mid-life career change.

“I could be model?” She points to her phone again, where a photo of her all glammed up is next to her husband’s wig shot in her gallery queue. But she is only joking. “No I am too old for it. I will just play tennis.”

Extrovert? Perhaps. And a champion, as well.
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