Top-seeded Li Na’s Australian Open triumph last month was followed by a stunning tumble when she lost to a qualifier in the third round of the Qatar Open on Thursday.
The celebrated Chinese player was beaten 7-6 (7-2), 2-6, 6-4 by Petra Cetkowska, a Czech ranked outside the top 100, in a topsy-turvy contest in Li’s first tournament since her Grand Slam triumph in Melbourne.
She seemed to have turned the match around when she came from behind to lead 3-1 in the final set, but then appeared to run out of steam in a two-hour 46-minute contest in which her ratio of errors increasingly soared.
Her consolations are that she will still be world number two for the first time – the highest ever by an Asian player – at the end of the week, and that she mostly stuck to an ambitiously aggressive game plan despite a disruptive wind.
“I don’t think my performance was so bad,” Li said. “Though if I had continued more coming to the net it would have been better. A defeat is not always so bad either. At least I fought and I got information from what happened. I will put that information straight into my training.”
Li paid tribute to Cetkowska, whose performance suggested she is recovering well from injuries which caused her to plunge from the world’s top 30.
Nevertheless, Li had so many chances to take hold of the contest, having game points to lead 3-0, 4-1, and 5-3 in the final set, and yet was unable to convert any of them.
Later there was some consolation for Chinese supporters when Peng Shuai became certain of becoming the first Chinese player ever to top a world ranking.
After she and Hsieh Su-Wieh, her Taiwanese partner, won their first-round doubles by 6-2, 6-4 against the Ukrainian-Russian combo of Irina Buryachok and Vitalia Diatchenko, they had earned enough points to climb above the current world number ones, Roberta Vinci and Sara Errani of Italy.
Peng, though, claimed to have been unaware of the accolade. “No, I didn’t know,” she said. “The coaches came and said congratulations. And I said ’are you sure?’”