"Hungry" Li declares dark days are over
Melbourne: Crises of confidence, shouting matches with her husband-coach and alternate waves of criticism and adulation from a nation of 1.3 billion - tennis has rarely been a smooth ride for China`s Li Na.
The tattooed 29-year-old returns to Melbourne Park, the scene of her trailblazing run to the final that set up a platform for an unlikely French Open victory over champion Francesca Schiavone in June.
The first grand slam singles winner from an Asian nation, Li has made a career of defying convention, from breaking away from China`s Soviet-style sports regime to manage her own team, to shattering the stereotype of the humourless Chinese athlete with her acerbic wit.
Li also dashed expectations by crashing spectacularly after her French Open title, when many thought it a precursor to a golden run.
Li was knocked out in the second round at Wimbledon and the first at the U.S. Open and finished the season in torment with tennis watchers at home claiming she had slacked off training to do fashion shoots and pander to sponsors.
And yet, with the knives out and tennis writers polishing their obituaries, Li has declared she is back after an encouraging run at the Hopman Cup and a final appearance in the Sydney International.
"I won six matches in a row," said Li, who upset world number two and Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova in the semi-finals at Sydney before losing to third-ranked Victoria Azarenka in the final.
"In the second half of last year, I think I couldn`t win three matches in a row. I mean, it was always like it was easy to lose the match. Also, I feel I lost all the confidence on the court.
"For me, I was not hungry anymore on the court in the last half of year. But now I feeling hungry again. I am still tough and I`m back."
Having complained that her off-court distractions were hurting her game, Li took a month-long boot-camp in Munich at the end of the season.
Her husband-coach Jiang Shan was shunted aside after Melbourne Park last year in favour of training with Denmark Fed Cup captain Michael Mortensen who helped prepare her for her French Open title, but Jiang is now back in the players` box.
Li joked in Sydney that Jiang`s snoring that kept her awake during her run to the Australian Open final last year had improved after she demanded he lose weight, but the pair still squabble to the amusement of spectators and media.
Li remarked in the warm-up tournament that her university sweetheart Jiang "sometimes does stupid things" and confessed that her eyes sometimes glaze over listening to his advice.
Jiang can bank on some more fun at his expense at Melbourne Park, where Kvitova believes Li could go deep into the second week.
"I think she`s playing very well," the Czech said after a practice session with Li on Sunday. "She`s very good on the legs, she`s moving, playing really fast. I mean, she can go really far in this tournament."
Li will be accompanied by her usual cohorts Zheng Jie, a former semi-finalist at Melbourne Park and Wimbledon, and the fast-improving Peng Shuai.
Twenty-six year-old Peng has shown signs of emerging from Li`s shadow with fourth-round appearances at three of the grand slams last year which had her break into the top 20 for the first time.
Li has tipped them both to follow her into the top 10 if they can stay fit and determined.
"I believe both Zheng Jie and Peng Shuai can break into the top 10 because I`ve trained with them both in the national team," Li told reporters in Chinese.
"Chinese players` training regimes, overall, are a bit more rigorous than foreigners... so if they work hard they`ll both get there."