Li Na gunning for top spot in the rankings

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Li Na gunning for top spot in the rankings

Li Na may turn 32 next week but for the Chinese star and her legions of fans, the march of time is not exactly a cause for concern. In a growing trend seen across both men’s and women’s tennis, Li has enjoyed many of the best results of her career since turning 30, reaching the US Open semi-finals for the first time last September before finally winning the Australian Open at the start of this season.

“I don't think we are old,” she retorted to journalists enquiring about the continued success of the tour’s thirty-somethings.

We’re just a little bit, how do you say, more experienced on the tour. Now the tennis is not only about technique. The most important thing for us is being mentally strong on the court. Maybe some young players have very good technique, but they are not strong enough or they don't have enough experience on the court.”

Experience certainly paid dividends in the Melbourne final last month as Li battled through a tough first set before seeing off Slovak Dominika Cibulkova, appearing in her first Grand Slam final.

Her success has taken her to a new career high ranking of No.2 below the ever-present force that is Serena Williams.

However Williams has many points to defend this season after a brilliant 2013 which saw her scoop up a whole host of titles, including two slams.

And Li knows that should she slip up this season, she is perfectly poised to capitalise and become the first Chinese world no.1 in tennis history.

“I’m really happy,” she said, when asked about her new ranking.

“But everyone would like to have a higher ranking, right? This year is just beginning, you know. And we have 52 weeks in the season. I’ve done well in the very first month but there are still 11 more to go.”

After winning her maiden Grand Slam title at the 2011 French Open, Li was greeted by mass hysteria when she returned home and afterwards she joked that her agent was unable to sleep for nearly a fortnight with all the media requests.

However this time round, things have been considerably more laid back, even if she’s had little time to relax.
“There hasn’t really been much time for celebration, because after Melbourne, I headed straight back to China for Chinese New Year.

So I enjoyed that, spent three days with my parents and with my friend, but then after that I was straight back to gym as well going to see the doctor to look at how the body was feeling before heading to Doha.”

The tennis tour can be a little relentless at times and Li unsurprisingly looked a little rusty as she crashed out in the third round of the Qatar Open last week, struggling in the windy conditions.

After winning the French Open her form immediately nose-dived and she went into a bit of a slump for the rest of the season but these days she’s older and wiser and she knows what to expect.

“It feels much different,” she said.

When I won my first Grand Slam it was more exciting, because I didn't know what would happen. I didn’t know what to expect whether I’d won or lost that final. But by the time I won in Australia this year, I’d trained so hard on the mental side of the game for the past one and a half years.

Tennis is not only about technique. So that's why after Melbourne I was not quite so excited, I felt a lot more relaxed and calm.”

It’s never easy to deal with the increased expectations and attention once you’ve won your debut slam which is why it took almost 3 years for Li to add a second major title to her tally.

One player who knows a lot about that is Ana Ivanovic who has never come close to winning another slam since triumphing at the 2008 French Open.

However the past year has been extremely encouraging for the Serb who beat Serena Williams en route to the Australian Open quarters and she’s on the verge of breaking back into the top ten.

“I definitely have more confidence right now than I had in the previous years,” she said.

“I really hope I can start putting that in place, match after match. Hopefully that can change now.”

“I think confidence comes a lot of the time not just from within but also from the people that you surround yourself with.

I have a new team and I really feel they are very positive, they are very much behind me. Even on the days when I'm doubting myself or struggling, they’re positive and they are supporting me, and that means a lot to me.”

“When you have that positive affirmation and encouragement day in and day out, it does make a difference.

I’ve always felt I have the game to beat top players, but sometimes this confidence was lacking. Over the months and weeks that we spend together, I develop trust as well. It means a lot to me.”