Li NA is confident she can take winning the Australian Open title in her stride after being overwhelmed by her last major success.
The 31-year-old added a second grand slam title to the French Open crown she won in 2011 with a straight-sets 7-6, 6-0 victory over Dominika Cibulkova at Melbourne Park on Saturday. Li was the first Chinese player to win a grand slam singles title and 116 million people watched her Roland Garros triumph on TV in her home country.
It turned her into a megastar and the pressure on her shoulders and on her time was something she toiled to deal with. She won only six more matches during the rest of 2011 and it was not until she linked up with Justine Henin’s former coach, Carlos Rodriguez, in the summer of 2012 that she became a grand slam contender once again.
Li said: “When I won the French Open I really didn’t prepare for that. I didn’t know what I should do after the win. Also nobody told me what I should do.
“I think now it’s different because I prepared to win the grand slam. Also Carlos, he has a lot of experience because before he was coaching Justine Henin. We will talk about what we should do. This time I was thinking about if I win or if I lose, what kind of life I will have.”
Winning in Australia was the title Li really wanted after losing in the final in 2011 and 2013. The victory will move her to within 11 points of Victoria Azarenka when the new rankings are released today, but she knows building on her latest success will take a lot of hard work.
She said: “When last year I said I wanted to be top three, nobody believed me. At the beginning of this year I said I wanted to win another grand slam title. Nobody believed me. The most important thing is I believed, Carlos believed, my team believed. Of course it’s very easy to say I want to win another one. But I think if you are a tennis athlete, you have to know how much work has to be done only to win one grand slam. If I want to win another one or two, I have to go back on court and work hard, even more tough than before, otherwise I’ll have no chance.”
A big feature of Li’s game is that even in her 30s she has not been afraid to make changes, working on her net game and altering her grip on serve and backhand, all at the encouragement of Rodriguez. And she warned her rivals that she has more improvements up her sleeve. “I think I can do more,” she said. “I’ve had a taste, and it was pretty good, so I will continue to try new things if they can help my game.”
Cibulkova was a surprise finalist but more than earned her place with successive wins over four higher-ranked players in Carla Suarez Navarro, Maria Sharapova, Simona Halep and Agnieszka Radwanska. The Slovakian had only previously been in one grand slam semi-final but she will take away from Melbourne the belief that she belongs in such company. “When you play a grand slam final, it’s not just like that,” she said. “It’s a big step. I’m ready to take it. I was waiting for this for a long time. Now I want to do 100 per cent to keep it up. I’ve got so much confidence from this tournament. I don’t want to see it as a pressure. I already did well before at Roland Garros and Wimbledon, so I can play on every surface.”
Among a generation that also includes Azarenka, Radwanska, Caroline Wozniacki and Petra Kvitova, 5ft 3in Cibulkova had not been picked out as a potential grand slam champion. But she now sees no reason why she cannot go one step further. “I’m 24 years old and I’ve already played in a grand slam final,” she said. “I feel like my game is there to challenge the biggest names, to beat them. Of course it would have been great to win my first final but I think it takes time. It’s not that easy. Now I know that it’s just another match in your life. That’s how you have to take it.”