Li Na likes being first at whatever she does.
If you don’t have such competitive ideals it is pretty difficult to get far in your chosen field. She has certainly achieved plenty of firsts. First Chinese player to crack the top 10. First Asian player to reach a Grand Slam final. First Asian player to win a Grand Slam title, and so on. She has now become the first Asian player to reach the world’s top three. The previous best was by Japan’s Kimiko Date who made it to four.
Additionally, she is the first Chinese player to reach the final of a season-ending championship. Li Na will play for the TEB BNP Paribas WTA Championships when she takes on Serena Williams for the title.
“I like to be the first,” said Li, who started 2013 by winning the inaugural title in Shenzhen. “I catch my goal, top 3 in the world – at the beginning of the year that was my goal. I don’t know, lucky or happy in the last tournament; I make it (but) pretty good ending for 2013.”
She had to reach the final in Istanbul to make top three for the year and she said it was not something in her mind when she served for the match against her friend Petra Kvitova in the semis, in fact she “didn’t think about anything” at that point.
“If I think too much, maybe I already lose the games,” she said.
Li says this has been the best year of her career even though she won the French Open in 2011, but the fact that she has performed consistently well throughout, or as she put it “more controlled”, places 2013 ahead.
However, after facing disappointment at the China Open in Beijing, she sat down with her coach Carlos Rodriguez who used to coach Justine Henin and had a long chat. While Rodriguez is strict, he is also a calming influence and that is something important for Li who can be pretty emotional.
He told her if she reached the semi-final at the TEB BNP Paribas WTA Championships she would end the year four but then added reaching the final she would “catch your goal” of three.
“I was like, ‘sounds easy’ and he say ‘yeah, but you have to do what you say, don’t say what you do’. I was like okay, it’s tough. It’s tough talking against him,” said Li laughing.
You can’t help but like Li Na. She is a wonderful personality and such an important product or brand, for women’s tennis. Her emotions on-court adds to that persona. Off-court when she stumbles over English words and laughs at herself, or when she has a dig at her long suffering husband Jiang Shan, who she absolutely adores, she just disarms anyone else in the room.
But now all that has to be put to one side as she takes on Serena Williams, who she has only ever beaten once in the ten matches. At the US Open Serena won and Li Na says her mistake then was allowing the fact that it was Serena across the net to get into her mind, that proved to be her undoing.
“I think in the US Open already lose the match before I come to the court,” she said. “Maybe now I have to try to focus on what I should do on the court, not focus on what she do on the court. I have to try to play my game, and not follow her.”
Her coach says she needs to play with freedom and not get tight. Probably easier said than done, especially when it’s Serena Williams on the other side and you are trying to do things even better than you normally do because Serena is just so darn strong, and fast and powerful. She puts the pressure on an opponent.
“Is different, Chinese and Western, because I think the Western people, they like to share how you feeling now, but I don't know how is Chinese, but for myself, if I feeling something, I never try to talk to the team. I always block. I always feeling I'm strong enough, I can fix everything,” she said.
“I think this is weakness. So I think the real strong person, if they feeling something, for sure, they will speak out, because they find to someone can help them to make even more stronger.
“So that's why I was feeling every time I talk to Carlos I was feeling terrible. I was feeling no secret in front of him. But now I was feeling much better, because I try to, how do you say, open my mind a little bit to share the feeling.”
She says she is going in with no pressure because she has achieved her goal of becoming top three and now this is the last match of the season before taking holidays and time to mull over her next goal … getting to No.2.
“Why not?” she said shrugging her shoulders with that cheeky smile she has.
But who knows winning the title might just get in the way.