DOHA: People look at Chinese players differently since Li Na won two Grand Slam titles, the new Australian Open champion claims.
Li, who is seeded to win the Qatar Open title this week, is as amazed as anyone at the transformation in attitudes which have taken place recently.
“I remember when I was young that people would say ‘she’s a Chinese player, she’s easy’, “ said Li, who plays her first match since her Melbourne triumph today.
“That’s not like now. Now people know exactly (who they are playing). And they know who she is and what she does and how she works.
“So I feel there are no secrets on the tour now. It’s both good and bad,” the player from Wuhan concluded, perhaps partially concerned that rivals will better be able to work out ways of dealing with her assertive ball striking.
But while Li has rather mixed feelings about the attention she gets from other players, she enjoys a great deal more the acclaim she receives from spectators.
“I really enjoyed that in Melbourne,” she said. “It’s my favourite Grand Slam - the feeling is very friendly. More and more people know who I am.”
However, Li is not the only Chinese player likely to gain extra attention this week, even though she will end it by climbing one place to a career-high world number two.
That is because she is likely be denied the opportunity to become the first Chinese player ever to become a world number one by Peng Shuai who needs only to win one match with her Taiwanese partner Hsieh Su-Wei to top the rankings in the women’s doubles.
Peng and Hsieh, who are seeded second, will play Irina Buryachok of Ukraine and Vitalia Diatchenko of Russia and hope to progress to a final with Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci, the current world number one pair.
Later Li learned that she will make her post-Australian restart against Magdalena Rybarikova, the world number 32 from Slovakia who took three hours to overcome Francesca Schiavone, the former French Open champion from Italy, by 7-5, 4-6, 7-6(7-3). Li’s successes have helped galvanise Peng in singles as well as doubles, for after scoring a good first round win on Monday against Nadia Petrova, a former champion here, Peng hopes to progress against the seeded players. It is Li’s relaxed confidence which is infectious. She attributes this partly to the help of Carlos Rodriguez, the talented Argentine coach who previously helped Belgium’s Justine Henin to seven Grand Slam singles titles.
“After I won the French Open (in 2011) I was so popular in China I didn’t know what to do,” Li says. “I felt I had to do so many things off court and I lost concentration on court.
“I was very tense. Now I am much more relaxed because Carlos has helped me alter my mind. Now I have better control of it. Now I have better focus.”
It is this conspicuous quality which may have become most influential.A bigger question though is whether Li’s pioneering - she chooses her own coach, trainer, and physio, and tailors her own schedule and regime according to her own needs - will influence other Chinese players who have been more thoroughly raised with a squad ethic.
The answer is politically tinged. Surprisingly Li does not entirely duck it. “I followed my heart,” she said. “Maybe I am not smart enough to do anything else.”
But maybe she is. A smart-sounding mixture of diplomacy and wisdom seemed to characterise her answer. “Everyone is different, so maybe you can copy (me) or maybe not,” she says. “I am not sure this is the best way.”