People look at Chinese tennis players differently since Li Na won two Grand Slam titles, this year’s Australian Open champion said.
Li, who is seeded to win the Qatar Open title this week, is as amazed as anyone at the transformation in attitudes toward Chinese players that have taken place recently.
“I remember when I was young that people would say: ‘She’s a Chinese player, she’s easy,’ “ Li said ahead of her first match since her Melbourne triump, to be played yesterday in Doha.
“That’s not like now. Now people know exactly [who they are playing] and they know who she is and what she does and how she works. So I feel there are no secrets on the Tour now. It’s both good and bad,” the player from Wuhan said, perhaps partially concerned that rivals will better be able to work out ways of dealing with her assertive ball striking.
Yet while Li has mixed feelings about the attention she gets from other players, she enjoys the acclaim she receives from spectators a great deal more.
“I really enjoyed that in Melbourne,” she said. “It’s my favorite Grand Slam — the feeling is very friendly. More and more people know who I am.”
However, Li is not the only Chinese player likely to gain extra attention this week, even though she will probably end it by climbing one place to a career-high world No. 2.
That is because she is likely be denied the opportunity to become the first Chinese player ever to become a world No. 1 by Peng Shuai, who needs only to win one match with Taiwanese partner Hsieh Su-wei to top the rankings in the women’s doubles.
Peng and Hsieh, who are seeded second, will have to defeat Ukrainian Irina Buryachok and Russian Vitalia Diatchenko to progress to a final with current world No. 1 pair Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci of italy.
Li’s successes have helped galvanize Peng in singles and doubles. After scoring a good first-round win in Doha on Monday against former champion Nadia Petrova, Peng hopes to progress against the seeded players.
Li attributes her relaxed confidence partly to the help of Carlos Rodriguez, the talented Argentine coach who previously helped Belgium’s Justine Henin to seven Grand Slam singles titles.
“After I won the French Open [in 2011], I was so popular in China I didn’t know what to do,” Li said. “I felt I had to do so many things off court and I lost concentration on court. I was very tense. Now I am much more relaxed because Carlos has helped me alter my mind. Now I have better control of it, now I have better focus.”
It is this conspicuous quality which may have become most influential.
Yet a bigger question is whether Li’s pioneering approach — she chooses her own coach, trainer and physio, as well as tailors her own schedule and regime according to her needs — will influence other Chinese players who have been more thoroughly raised with a squad ethic.
The answer is politically tinged, but, surprisingly, Li does not duck it entirely.
“I followed my heart,” she said. “Maybe I am not smart enough to do anything else.”
However, she may be just that, given the smart-sounding mixture of diplomacy and wisdom that characterized her answer.
“Everyone is different, so maybe you can copy [me] or maybe not,” she said. “I am not sure this is the best way.”
Li she will make her post-Australian restart against Magdalena Rybarikova, the world No. 32 from Slovakia who took three hours to overcome Francesca Schiavone, the former French Open champion from Italy, by 7-5, 4-6, 7-6(7-3).
In Tuesday’s action in Doha, ninth-seeded Ana Ivanovic of Serbia advanced to the second round after Slovakia’s Daniela Hantuchova retired from their match with a right knee injury.
Ivanovic was leading 7-5, 1-0 when Hantuchova withdrew after falling 0-40 behind in the second game.
The match started slowly for Ivanovic, who surrendered her first two serves as Hantuchova took a 5-3 lead. However, Ivanovic won the next four games to secure the set, winning the ninth game at love with her final three serves being aces.