For the first time in almost a year, since ‘La Chinoise’ became the champion at Roland Garros last June, people are talking with enthusiasm about Li Na’s game.
Though she probably should have closed out a victory in Rome at the weekend – where she led Maria Sharapova in the final by a set and 4-0 – it should be noted that the match was completed on soaked, soggy orange clay. And she had played some decent tennis to have reached that position; life has been looking up for Li.
Since Madame Li won La Coupe Suzanne Lenglen, so becoming the first Chinese to win a grand slam singles title, you will have heard more about her cultural, social and economic impact than about her forehands and backhands. Was Li’s victory – which was apparently watched by more than 300 million households in the People’s Republic – the occasion which mobilised the Chinese in tennis, inspiring young girls in the country’s villages and mega-cities? The other day, Forbes magazine included Li in their list of the world’s 100 most powerful and influential celebrities.
You also will have heard much about Li’s success in the sponsorship game, about how she has been threatening to usurp Sharapova as the world’s highest-earning sportswoman.
Or perhaps you have been distracted by the storyline of her coaching arrangements with her husband Jiang Shan – in the past year, he has been fired and then rehired. She won in Paris with a Danish coach, Michael Mortensen, but is now back with her husband.
You can understand why her results have not been fantastic since Paris last spring. She has not gone deep into the slams (she was a second-round loser at Wimbledon, didn’t last a round at the US Open, and went no further than the fourth round at this year’s Australian Open). But her tennis has picked up on the European clay-courts over the past month; she lost a three-setter to Agnieszka Radwanska in the quarter-finals of the Stuttgart tournament, was beaten in three sets by world number one Victoria Azarenka in the last eight of Madrid, and then came close to winning the title in Rome. As Li put it, “I think I’m ready for the French Open”. A year on, Li is richer, wiser, and just as capable.