2013 in Review: Li Na
Became first Asian player to ever crack the top three, finishing the year there. Reached the Australian Open final and the U.S. Open semifinals. Also reached finals in Stuttgart and the WTA Championships, and only failed to reach the quarterfinals of three events all season.
Dropped out of Roland Garros in the second round, and was criticized by the Chinese media after making these comments in press when asked what she had to say to the Chinese people after the loss: “I lost a game and that's it. Do I need to get on my knees and kowtow to them? Apologize to them?"
It takes a lot of courage to do what Li Na has been doing for the last year and a half, ever since she hired Carlos Rodriguez to guide her through what may be the last, challenging phase of her already trailblazing career. But we shouldn't be surprised about that because courage has never been lacking from the character of the soon-to-be 32-year-old from Wuhan, China. The woman who thumbed her nose at China's state sports system five years ago is now thumbing her nose at the conventions of unimaginative baseline bashing in women's tennis, opting instead for a more aggressive and opportunistic net game that features a newly honed and rather picturesque textbook volley.
Should we be surprised? Well, yes.
Who does Li Na think she is? At 31 years of age and already by far the greatest player in the history of Chinese tennis (Asia, too, but who's counting?), what is motivating her to get into the best shape of her career and transform her game so astronomically?
Li isn't just talking the talk, mind you, she is walking the walk. A year and a half after hiring Carlos Rodriguez, one of the most revered and accomplished taskmasters in women's tennis, she has undergone a transformation both mentally and physically, and she heads into the 2014 season more balanced on and off the court than she ever has been before.
It has been truly inspiring to watch Li progress under Rodriguez, particularly when it comes to the volley: a shot we didn't see her hit for the first ten years of career (honestly, did she ever go near the net pre-Rodriguez?) has now become a reliable staple, a play she makes with purpose and efficiency.
How many tennis fans have clamored for his or her favorite player to step out of their comfort zone and take their game to a new level by adding new wrinkles, only to have been disappointed to find that that player will never change?
Not Li Na. She has, with open arms, embraced the challenge of turning 30 (she'll turn 32 in February) and still not seeing the player she wants to be in the mirror by hiring the brutal, exacting ex-coach of Justine Henin to whip her into shape. The pairing has proven to be one of the most intriguing in all of tennis, because one senses that Rodriguez has as much to prove as Li does at this stage of his career. How much of the future success of Rodriguez's Academy in China (and his overall coaching legacy) is dependent upon how well he does with Li Na under his wing during these the final years of her career?
So far the results have been encouraging—Li reached another Australian Open final last year and might have won were it not for a few freakish falls, and she also reached her first career WTA Championships final this fall, and might have won there had she not blown a lead against Serena Williams—but there are some concerns. Rodriguez has done a tremendous job of making Li into a superb volleyer, but will he now encourage Li to scale things back so that she uses the shot to complement her game rather than define it? Li seemed to be forcing the volley in her U.S. Open semifinal against Serena Williams, and on a windy day against a player who can strike the ball with the power of Williams', it seemed a foolish tactic to take.
If Rodriguez is the elite coach we think him to be, he'll have to step back and let Li's instincts take the wheel. Credit to him as he appears to have her more confident and more emotionally balanced than she ever has been, but for her game to truly flourish, Li will have to remember that she won her one and only Grand Slam title by unleashing some of the most divine baseline tennis that the game has ever seen, not by knocking off a plethora of volleys.
No matter how good her volleying becomes—and it is already excellent—Li must remember that she is first and foremost an aggressive baseliner. By all means she should embrace the new tools she's acquired and use them to her advantage, but going to the well too often by approaching or serving-and-volleying repetitively is only going to make her opponents more prepared to pass her.
But let's not let the concern quell any enthusiasm for what Li has done to her game of late. It really is tremendous to see her clean up volleys at net, and it is equally impressive to witness her consistency improve. She only failed to reach the quarterfinals at three events in 2013—if she can continue to do this while simultaneously completing her digestion of all that Rodriquez has imparted upon her game, there could be another Grand Slam in the making for Li.
One thing's for certain. Nobody will ever accuse Li of not turning over every rock in her quest to finish her career off on her own terms, as the very best player that she can possibly be. For that fact alone, she'll go down as a hero.
As Asia's only Grand Slam singles title winner, and the highest-ranked player in the history of the continent, there isn't a lot for Li to prove. That she is digging into the trenches with more determination than ever is a testament to her character. One needs only to study the story of Marion Bartoli to realize that it would be easy for Li to go in the other direction and remove the great burden of China's expectations from her shoulders. To her credit, Li's recent success has only served to spark her most recent renaissance.
For that, tennis fans should be thankful.