MELBOURNE: Li Na’s on-court jokes mask a feisty and fiery personality which has helped her blaze a trail for Chinese tennis and become one of the country’s most famous stars.
The redoubtable 30-year-old is always ready with a quick quip after her victories but she is also known for her tangles with Chinese authorities and media during her long journey to the top.
Li, from Wuhan, remembers bitterly how she was co-opted into tennis from China’s badminton programme, against her will, at the age of just nine. At 14 Li, an only child, lost her father.
Success has arrived late in her career but when it finally came, it was bigger than she could have anticipated.
Winning the 2011 French Open made her a household name in China and she has been rated as the world’s second richest sportswoman by Forbes magazine, behind only Maria Sharapova. Li has 10 million fans on Chinese social media, a bronze statue in her home city and a string of lucrative endorsements.
Now she stands one victory away from a second Grand Slam title, in her second Australian Open final, a win which would cement her standing as a genuine force in women’s tennis.
“Last time was more exciting, and I was more nervous, because it was first time to be in the final. But I think this time I’m more calm, more cool,” she said.