Li Na hits top form in time for another crack at the Australian Open
Chinese star blacked out during last year's final, but goes into Australian Open feeling confident
Li Na blacked out during last year's Australian Open final and in 2012 she departed in floods of tears. Now she may feel that, finally, her time has come.
The season's first grand slam has been a love-hate affair for the Chinese star, a popular figure at Melbourne Park who has twice made the final without being able to lift the trophy.
But ongoing improvement under coach Carlos Rodriguez has put Li, who turns 32 next month, in a strong position to make the trophy hers.
Li, ranked fourth in the world, ended 2013 at a career-high three following her runner-up finish to Serena Williams at the season-ending WTA Championships.
It capped a year that began in bittersweet circumstances for Li, who was a set up against Victoria Azarenka in the Melbourne final before painfully rolling her left ankle.
After the traditional break for Australia Day fireworks, Li went down again in the third set, smashing the back of her head on the court and briefly blacking out.
"I think I was a little bit worried when I fell down and my head hit the floor, because for two seconds I couldn't really see anything. It was totally black," she said at the time.
"So when the physio came, she was like, 'Focus on my finger'. I started laughing. I was thinking, 'This is a tennis court, not a hospital!'"
Li became Asia's first grand slam singles finalist at the Australian Open in 2011, when she was also a set up against Kim Clijsters before losing in three.
However, it proved the springboard to her greatest success, when she made history as Asia's first grand slam winner at the French Open later that year.
With expectations sky-high, and sponsors and media clamouring for her attentions, Li's form dipped and she fled her press conference in tears after a fourth-round Australian Open defeat to Clijsters in 2012.
Months later, after nose-diving out of the London Olympics' first round, Li took the tough decision to sideline her husband, Jiang Shan, as coach in favour of Argentina's Rodriguez.
It proved another bold but highly effective move from Li, who famously walked away from China's harsh state system. She approaches the Australian Open in good form after starting the year with victory at the Shenzhen Open, beating compatriot Peng Shuai in the final.
Li will now feel confident about facing anyone - except perhaps the intimidating Williams, against whom she employed an unusual tactic in the WTA Championships final in October. "Yeah, don't look at her at all, you know," she confided in Istanbul. The trick did not work for Li, who went down 2-6, 6-3, 6-0.