China’s Li sets sights on world number one after clinching the Aussie Open

China’s Li sets sights on world number one after clinching the Aussie Open

MELBOURNE - Agence France-Presse
China’s Li sets sights on world number one after clinching the Aussie Open

Li Na of China (above) kisses the Xhampionship trophy after defeating Dominika Cibulkova of Slovakia (below left) in their women’s singles final at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne. AA photo

Li Na said she was ready to work hard to become world number one yesterday after clinching a popular Australian Open victory which looks set to accelerate China’s tennis boom.

The Chinese star will return to third in the rankings when they are released on Monday, just 11 points behind second-placed Victoria Azarenka, after downing Dominika Cibulkova for her -- and Asia’s -- second Grand Slam singles title.

Li’s third ranking is the highest achieved by an Asian player and she acknowledged she now had a chance of supplanting American great Serena Williams, winner of 17 Grand Slam titles, as world number one.

“Of course I have to win more matches or win more titles,” she said, when asked about the prospect in the early hours of Sunday, after her win at Rod Laver Arena.“Now I’m pretty happy, I’ve just won the title. So I’ll have a couple of days’ rest, and then back to normal life training hard on the court again.” The 31-year-old added “everyone has a chance” to reach the top ranking, but she had a better opportunity than most after finally landing the Australian title after three appearances in the final.

Winning after favorites exit

Li, who lost to Kim Clijsters in 2011 and Azarenka last year, survived a match point against Lucie Safarova in the third round but from then on was never seriously threatened.

But despite being favorite after the exits of Williams, Azarenka and Maria Sharapova, the fourth seed said many people underestimated how hard it was to win a Grand Slam.

“People don’t know if you have to win the title, how many different things you have to prepare,” she said. “Like what you should do on off-days, what you should do in the match, what you should do on the court, what you have to do off the court. People can’t really understand.” Li’s win was greeted warmly in Australia and abroad. “Final-Li,” read a headline in Melbourne’s Herald Sun, and “Yeah, Na, Yeah,” said The Sunday Age, in reference to her previous near-misses.

Chinese media, who have had a mixed relationship with one of the country’s biggest stars, were also effusive. “Congratulations sister Na!” said state news agency Xinhua.

Her victory is exquisitely timed for the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), which will hold six tournaments in China this year and is staging its end-of-year finale in Singapore for the first time.
And Li said with two Chinese men contesting the Australian Open main draw for the first time, and a number of juniors also playing in Melbourne, the future looked bright for Chinese tennis.

12 juniors in total

“I think this year there’s a lot of juniors coming. One girl lost in the junior semi-finals. Also we can see this year there were two men playing in the men’s draw,” she said. “I think in total there were 12 juniors. So I think they have a huge chance -- they will be the best.” Li, the Australian Open’s oldest women’s winner, added: “This year they’re already having a lot of tournaments in China, especially after the US Open. So that means a very good chance for the Chinese players.

“They don’t have to travel outside of China, they can play in China and they have a chance to face the best players in the world.” Top of Li’s list for this year is the US Open, rather than Wimbledon or another French Open trophy, “because I prefer hard courts”.

But first Li, now US$2.65 million richer, will return to Wuhan for Chinese New Year and show her mother, who is too nervous to attend her matches, the gleaming Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup.
“I’ll show her one second, and then bring it to my house,” said Li, delivering another of the one-liners that had the crowd in stitches during her victory speech.

Asked if she was still hungry for success, she said: “Of course. I haven’t had dinner yet.”