Australian Open: Champion Li Na—"When She Smiles, Everyone Melts"

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Women hold up half the sky.”—Mao Tse-Tung

By Bill Simons

To my perhaps jaded eye, Li Na looks like Buddha.

But she is one Buddha who bristles.

When, as a child, her parents told her to stop focusing on badminton in order to play tennis, she said, “Why didn’t anyone ask me?” When, in 2008, she grew tired of the Chinese Tennis Federation—who never praised her, always told her where to play, and kept 65% of winnings—she bristled and bravely decided: I’ll do it my way. She did the unthinkable, she bolted.

When a reporter went on and on about Michael Chang’s impact on Asian tennis, she bristled and noted, “He’s American.”

After a bad loss last year at the Wimbledon warm-up in Eastbourne, she again bristled, and almost retired.

Thank goodness she didn’t. For she is one of the most appealing and influential athletes in the world.

For starters, she almost singlehandedly has changed the landscape of an increasingly global game. It’s hardly shocking that last year Time Magazine named her one of the 100 most influential people in the world. Similarly, the WTA’s CEO Stacey Allaster noted that if the Williams sisters were the most influential women players of the previous decade, Li will probably be the most influential one this decade.

After all, out of  a land of 1.3 billion people, a country which over the past 70 years has navigated a tumultuous path of revolution, famine, insurrection, cultural upheaval, and economic explosion, there emerged a single woman who would popularize the game in Asia and open hearts and captivate the imaginations of aspiring kids from Canton and Calcutta, from Kyoto to California.

Want some stats? Here are some stats. Fifteen million people now play tennis in China, and 120 million watched Li Na play last year’s Aussie Open final. She has 20 million followers on China’s Twitter, and tennis tournaments are sprouting all over Asia. “She’s such a breath of fresh air,” wrote Chris Evert. “And like Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova before her, Li Na has transcended her sport.”

Li is, along with Novak Djokovic, the most hilarious player in an often  grim game. Cryptic and hilariously blunt, she once confided that she had troubles on court because her much-maligned husband Jiang Shan snores too much. When she was later asked why she plays the game, she simply said, “Money.” (Newsflash: she’s now worth $40 million.) At the US Open, she referenced an old Chinese proverb that she claimed says, “If you love somebody, send them to New York. If you hate somebody, send them to New York.”

Here in Melbourne, where she tumbled to the courts twice during last year’s final;, she joked her goal for the tournament was not to fall. When she was down match point to Lucie Safarova in the third round, only surviving because a potential winner by the Czech floated out by a couple of inches, she quipped, “I think the five centimeters save my tournament. If she hit in … my whole team on the way to the airport.” Later, when Inside Tennis asked whether she would send Safarova a present or a check if she won the Aussie Open, she bristled:  “I’ll send smile.” And tonight, after scoring a  7-6 (3), 6-0 win over Dominka Cibulkova to win her second Grand Slam (in addition to the 2011 French Open), she again spoke of her favorite comic foil, her husband. “Thanks,” she said. “He give up everything. He hit me balls. He fix drinks. He fix rackets. Thanks a lot, you’re a nice guy.”

In the post-match press conference, we wondered whether her husband ever tired of this routine. She replied,  “If he say, ‘Enough,’ I think we will divorce (laughter). I will keep my way.”

Similarly, on court she thanked her agent Max Eissenbud, saying, “Max, make me rich.”

So we asked her about that line. She explained, “I have over 10 sponsors … It’s little bit tough for him …  China and America have jet lag. [But] China company don’t care about that. They just call him middle of the night, so it’s very tough. But it’s very good for him. Try to lose the weight [Max]. Sorry about that.”

More to the point, Li was sorry about the way she played the first set against Cibulkova. This was her fourth Slam final. She was ranked No. 4, Cibulkova was No. 24. Plus, Li had won all four of their previous matches, is five inches taller, and—not that it mattered one bit—her home country is 280 times bigger than the Slovokian’s.

You’d think the veteran Li would be confident, on her A game. Except for her one great scare against Safarova, she hadn’t been tested much. The top three threats in the game—Serena, Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka—had all been demolished. The highest seed Li faced was No. 16, and the average ranking of her foes was a lowly 134.

But then again, this is Li Na, who has a history of scratchy play. After scoring an early break, she saw her first-serve percentage plummet to a dicey 18%. Her forehand faltered. Cibulkova used her wheels to scamper corner to corner and blast flat inside-out forehands. “The Pocket Rocket”broke back and labored long to hold her own serve, threatening to steal a long, curious set between two nervous players who were sublime one moment and dismal the next.

Peeved and out of sorts, Li bristled. But in this compelling, but herky-jerky battle, she also did something different. Unlike in her past Aussie Open finals, she remained calm and patient, knowing she was the better player. Tapping into her inner confidence, she fought to claim a 6-5 lead, and a set point. After a backhand fell wide, the set went to a tiebreak, where she used punishing groundies and deep returns to race to a convincing 7-3 win.

And even more than in the previous night’s Nadal-Federer semifinal, the first set tiebreak determined the match.

Relaxed and confident knowing that she had the lead, Li zoned. A champion was now displaying her pedigree against a foe who too often was haplessly pinned behind the baseline, and who was—literally and figuratively—over her head.

Li’s two-handed backhand—so potent, so lovely—was on fire. Her down-the-line forehand became a considerable weapon. Her serve soared. She lost just six points on serve in the second set. When a Cibulkova forehand flew long, Li knew she had secured a historic win. A Chinese player had secured the Aussie Open, the Asian Grand Slam, for the first time. While there was much elation after the win, when we asked her what one word best summarized her two-week run to victory. Li didn’t hesitate, saying, “Tough. You say in end, ‘Oh, she’s got the title,’ but the people didn’t see how tough [I have to work].” She remembered how, during the off-season, she thought to herself, “Okay, not next year.” She added, “You know, it is very tough if I play Safarova in 109 degrees, and we play three hours.”

True, but ultimately this is a woman of rare joy, a woman with a radiant inner delight and sense of whimsy which she shares freely on big stages. “At tournaments, “ noted Chris Evert, “I’ve seen her charm the crowds. When she smiles, everyone melts.”

So we said to Li that it seems she likes to hear people laugh. She didn’t bristle. Instead, she sighed, “You know, why not? Everyone be happy for every day.”

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