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Hodgkinson: Li Na, A Lady At Ease

With Li Na about to make an historic rise to No.2 in the world, Mark Hodgkinson takes a look at just how much more comfortable the Chinese trailblazer is with the world spotlight after Grand Slam No.2.

Published February 14, 2014 12:13

Hodgkinson: Li Na, A Lady At Ease
Li Na, Dominika Cibulkova

DOHA, Qatar - Competing on the international tennis scene isn't like spinning around the cocktail party circuit: droll one-liners and amusing asides only get you so far. Even so, to listen to Li Na's victory speech at this year's Australian Open - almost certainly the funniest address ever given at Melbourne Park or indeed anywhere on the tennis map - was to gain an insight into the athlete from Wuhan city.

And that wasn't because the jokes demonstrated that Li has a sense of humour - that story broke a long time ago - but because they suggested that second time around she is very comfortable with her status as a Grand Slam champion. Such was the significance of Li's breakthrough triumph at the 2011 French Open, when she became the first Chinese to win a Grand Slam singles title, it took a while for her to adjust to everything that came with that achievement. Suddenly, she was no longer just a tennis player; she was, according to Time magazine, one of the 100 most influential people in the world. This time, there's every indication she will cope just fine with winning a major, as well as with moving to second in the WTA's rankings, trailing only Serena Williams. So the Daphne Akhurst Trophy isn't going to throw her like La Coupe Suzanne Lenglen did. "It was a bit difficult for me after Roland Garros - the first time I won a Grand Slam title I was not quite sure what was the next step," Li said in an interview from the Qatari peninsula. "After the Australian Open, I feel I have the experience to deal with what could happen after it."

So what of those she had affectionately teased in Melbourne? Li, who turns 32 this month, disclosed her agent Max Eisenbud and her husband Jiang Shan didn't mind being mentioned in her set at the Rod Laver Comedy Club. That night at Melbourne Park, she had opened with some words for Eisenbud, who has turned her into one of the world's highest-earning female athletes: "Max, agent, makes me rich. Thanks a lot." There was laughter all around the stadium. And this was how she thanked her spouse: "My husband, you're famous in China. Thanks to him for everything, travelling with me as my hitting partner. He fixes my drinks, fixes my racquets. So, thanks a lot, you're a nice guy. Also, you were lucky to find me."

It was only after the completion of the prize-giving ceremonies, and all the other on-court and off-court choreography that follows a Grand Slam final, that Li was able to join her husband, agent and other supporters in a suite. "They had already started to celebrate. I joined them and we all celebrated together. We've been working together as a team, and they were all very happy. The Australian Open title is a reward to everyone in the team. And we were proving to the world that we could do it. Jiang Shan didn't respond to my specific words but I think he should be very happy about the result, too. Max sent me an e-mail saying he would make me more money."

Since beating Slovakia's Dominika Cibulkova in the Melbourne final, Li has spent just three days in her home country, celebrating Chinese New Year with her family. So it wasn't easy for her to assess how the tennis public in Wuhan, and across the rest of the People's Republic, had responded to her victory: "It's hard for me to know what the reaction was, but I thank all the fans for showing me support." What she can say for sure is that whenever she plays a tournament, such as the one in Doha, she enjoys support from tennis enthusiasts from across the world. Li isn't just popular in China, but globally, too (making funny speeches won't be doing her any harm): "One good thing to mention is whenever I go to play a tournament there are fans from all around the world showing their support."

Li's Melbourne triumph was another demonstration of the growing importance of Asia in women's tennis. Every week of the tennis calendar, the WTA's players are following the Road To Singapore, with the season-ending WTA Championships to be held in the city. And with Peng Shuai at the top of the doubles game, there are now two Chinese players in the women's tennis elite. "Your ranking is a testament to your hard work and your great results over the year. But I'm confident that younger players will do better than what we've achieved," Li said. So, in years to come, could China dominate women's tennis? "It's only been a short history for tennis development in China. We've seen many younger girls from other countries who have been doing well, so it would be very tough and take time for China to get there. But it's promising at the same time."

So why haven't Chinese men been as successful as Chinese women? "I think because women work harder and are more diligent," she said, and then she laughed. Here's a lady at ease with herself and her achievements.

~ Mark Hodgkinson is a tennis writer and author based in London. He is currently working on 'The Secrets of The Locker Room', which will be published by Bloomsbury in 2015.

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