Still a labour of love for Li Na
Simple statistics don't tell the full story of the lady from Wuhan's battle at the Australian Open, or why she intends to keep going
Li Na is still a little a little hazy when it comes to exactly what was going on around centre court at Melbourne's Rod Laver Arena on January 26.
As the temperatures sweltered through the 30s, Li's battle with world No 1 Victoria Azarenka of Belarus in the final of the Australian Open had tennis fans at the edge of their seats as it stretched across three tense sets.
History now records that Li went down fighting, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, but what the bare statistics won't tell future generations is how the Chinese world No 5 laboured through valiantly after twisting her ankle twice in the course of the match and after smashing her head into the hard court. during a bad fall
While Li seems to have taken the loss - and that fall - in her stride ("I was feeling like: How many years since you fell down on the court? What are you doing on the court, like a junior?" Li joked after the match had ended), what has lingered most in her memory is the reaction she received from the crowd.
"I really have no idea why they have liked me so much over these couple of years," says Li, 30. "Every time I go there it seems the same. There are the Chinese fans and this year there were even a lot of Western fans trying to communicate with me. But why it is I don't know."
While Azarenka's questionable time-out in the last set of her semi-final win over young American Sloane Stephens played its part in placing the Aussie crowd in Li's corner, there is little doubt that her demeanour throughout the event helped persuade tennis fans Down Under to take the lady from Wuhan into their hearts.
What's more, the past few months have seen a renewed consistency and power creep back into Li's performances after an up-and-down 2012 that saw her world ranking slip out of the top 10 and saw many in the Chinese press in particular question just how much longer she would be around the game.
Speaking from her hometown five days after the final, and with her time since having been spent tucking in to her mother's cooking and catching up with family and friends, Li puts her form down to the work she has been doing with coach Carlos Rodriguez and to knowing more about the game - and herself.
"I've been doing a lot of training with Carlos and am very happy working with him," she says. "His training is not only for technique but on the mental side of the game. Right now I've been playing for many years, so I've got some experience as well.
"And also, I never give up. This for me is more important and also why I can keep the level for a couple of years."
While the scars of battle are still yet to heal - Li says she will leave for Germany tomorrow to have her injured ankle checked - the Chinese player is confident she can keep to her hectic schedule for the year, which after events in Qatar and Dubai sees her head here to Hong Kong for the BNP Paribas Showdown exhibition event on March 4, where she will face world No11 Caroline Wozniacki.
"I last played in Hong Kong two years ago and it helped me have a really good start to the year," Li said. "And playing Caroline is always a challenge. We get along very well too, so it should be a lot of fun."
Five months after playing an exhibition here in 2011, Li went on to capture the French Open, becoming the first Asian player to take a grand slam singles event. A repeat performance at Roland Garros this year is very much on her mind, but Li is not just focused on the slams.
"Every tournament is important to me," she says. "But I don't think there is anything we can achieve just by thinking about it. We need to set goals for ourselves and then put in the work to achieve them.
"Winning another grand slam or become world No1 are two goals that are quite difficult for me, so I can't get them just by luck. For everything in the game, I enjoy the process. So I can just work hard and whatever the final result will be, I will let nature take its course."
That hard work has certainly been paying off. Li's win-loss record for the year is 14-2, after victory at the inaugural WTA event in Shenzhen, a semi-final in Sydney and then that runner-up effort in Melbourne. No wonder she is enjoying her game.
"Not many people can have a job that is the same as their passion in life, the thing they enjoy doing every day," Li said. "I think such an opportunity is rare. I do enjoy playing tennis and my life outside of tennis, and so that's why I haven't thought about retiring. I can't find any reason for me to retire."
And with the long season still stretching out before her, Li says one of the most important lessons she has learned is how to deal with disappointments.
"You feel sad when losing the game, but we know that things will not always go smoothly," she says.
"There must be unpleasant moments sometimes and therefore you will be very happy when good things come to you.
"I believe that there are not many pro players who could have reached the final in Melbourne, so I still feel glad and satisfied. What I can do now is make conclusions and adjustments, and just start to work harder."