Li Na aims for another Grand Slam title against Victoria Azarenka in the Australian Open final.
Li Na’s on-court jokes mask a feisty and fiery personality which has helped her blaze a trail for Chinese tennis and become one of the country’s most famous stars.
The redoubtable 30-year-old is always ready with a quick quip after her victories but she is also known for her tangles with Chinese authorities and media during her long journey to the top.
Li, from Wuhan, remembers bitterly how she was co-opted into tennis from China’s badminton programme, against her will, at the age of just nine. At 14 Li, an only child, lost her father.
Success has arrived late in her career but when it finally came, it was bigger than she could have anticipated.
Winning the 2011 French Open made her a household name in China and she has been rated as the world’s second richest sportswoman by Forbes magazine, behind only Maria Sharapova.
Li has 10 million fans on Chinese social media, a bronze statue in her home city and a string of lucrative endorsements.
Now she stands one victory away from a second Grand Slam title, in her second Australian Open final, a win which would cement her standing as a genuine force in women’s tennis.
Of course, Victoria Azarenka is a tough opponent, but Li Na will be more prepared to win her second Major final.
“Last time was more exciting, and I was more nervous, because it was first time to be in the final. But I think this time I’m more calm, more cool,” she said.
Frustrated by her inability to reach the main draw of the Grand Slams, Li retired for two years in her early 20s when she studied journalism, but a plea to play in a national competition reignited her passion for the game.
She defied Chinese convention by getting a tattoo — a red rose — on her chest and employed her husband, Jiang Shan, as coach rather than using those provided by the China Tennis Association.
Li’s determination paid off when she became the first Chinese woman to win a Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) title in Guangzhou in 2004, and the first to make a Grand Slam quarter-final at Wimbledon two years later.
In 2006, she played the WTA’s first all-Chinese final, against Zheng Jie, and Li was also the first Chinese player to break into the top 20, the top 10 and the top five.
Li has chopped and changed her coaching set-up, switching from her husband to Denmark’s Michael Mortensen, who helped her win the French Open, and now trains with Carlos Rodriguez.
The partnership with Rodriguez, who guided Justine Henin to seven Grand Slam triumphs, has proved a turning point and she won her seventh WTA title in Shenzhen this month, and is now into her third Grand Slam final.
Meanwhile her husband Jiang remains as hitting partner, drinks-carrier and the butt of Li’s affectionate jokes, as well as the source of stability in her hectic life.
“If I win the title, maybe I’ll disappear for a couple days, try to stay with the family. No one will be able find me because I really need time with my friends and family,” she said.
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