A Fan's View: Li Na
Li Na may be one of tennis' most beloved characters, but her fans certainly need to learn to manage stress and have patience. Her game is volatile (as is her temper), and her streaks of exemplary play and absolute disaster can give you whiplash. What has it been like to sit shotgun on the Li bandwagon all these years? I caught up with Chris Ng, one of the most devoted fans of the two-time Grand Slam champion I know, to discuss his love for all things Li. Chris, a Canada-based fan, grew up learning that single-handed is the only way to hit a backhand, and you can find him playing on the Gay & Lesbian Tennis Alliance (GLTA) tour. Follow Chris on Twitter at @Ratazana.
SI.com: What is it about Li that makes you a fan?
Ng: I grew up learning to play tennis in Hong Kong during the Michael Chang era, so Li was an obvious choice for an Asian fan. I first noticed her after the wave of Chinese players breaking through around the time of the 2006 Australian Open doubles win by Yan Zi and Zheng Jie. Out of Zheng, Peng Shua and Li, Li's aggressive baseline game was more appealing to me based on my own game.
SI.com: You're an invaluable follow for me on Twitter because you can read the Chinese media. How is she covered by the Western media compared to the Chinese media?
Ng: I try to read the Chinese media as much as possible. Western media definitely has a more relaxed attitude when covering Li. During the early days, the Chinese media were very focused on accomplishments and results. And there's tremendous pressure from the national system for her to do well, especially during the Olympic years. That kind of pressure surfaces in the media -- not unlike the British press' treatment of Andy Murray.
I sometimes wonder if she hides her mean streak from the Western media out of politeness. She may feel more "at home" when talking to Chinese media and can be more blunt. One thing for sure is her personality is very different when speaking to Western media versus facing Chinese media. Most of the time, it's not intentional or manufactured. I see it as a reverse "lost in translation" when she conducts interviews in English. It brings out her funny side.
SI.com: The perception is that the Chinese media are highly critical of her. Based on what you've read, is that really the case? Or is it just a few lone voices in a sea of general praise?
Ng: I don't think they are that much more critical than any other journalists who ask critical questions throughout a player's career. People also need to consider the timing. Chinese media have been reporting on Li since way before she reached her first Wimbledon quarterfinal [in 2006]. They went through the ups and down of her career. They had a lot more downs to deal with than the Western media, who really didn't pay much attention to Li until she made the 2011 Australian Open final (or, at the earliest, when Li and Zheng both made the 2010 Australian Open semifinals).
The toughest time for Li after that was when she slumped following her 2011 French Open title, and the Western media never really asked a lot of tough question then. In a way, Li got a pass from the Western press, as she was already in her late 20s. The toughest questions were mostly about her being old, which she took in stride and turned into jokes.
SI.com: To the extent she is criticized in China, what is she criticized for? I've heard everything from her tattoo, to her more "Western" personality, to her -- let's face it -- bevy of shocking losses.
Ng: Shocking losses, first-round losses, Olympics losses and conflicts with Chinese National Tennis Association are most of them. A bad attitude toward Chinese fans (who love to cheer at the most inappropriate moments) is another example. I think the tattoo thing is a bit overblown. I don't really recall that much criticism.
SI.com: Is there anything the West might not know about her that you've learned from reading the Chinese press?
Ng: This is a hard one. She's too famous now to have any kind of secret. You are probably more well versed with her life than I am after reading her autobiography. Did people know that her husband, Jiang Shan, was upset with Li's repeated use of the snore story? By the way, Jiang is a super-nice guy. Best target for selfies at a tournament.
SI.com: You're in Canada, so I assume you've had an opportunity to attend the Rogers Cup. Have you had a chance to see Li play live? How does watching her play in person compare to seeing her on television? Anything stand out?
Ng: I was there for her [three-set victory] against Ana Ivanovic in Toronto last year. As a fan of both, it was very tough to choose between the two. It's hard to say if there is a huge difference live versus on TV. But it was definitely fun watching her practicing with Jiang (her coach, Carlos Rodriguez, wasn't there). All the smirky exchanges and bantering were both funny and sweet.
SI.com: Does it surprise you that she's now a two-time Grand Slam champion?
Ng: No, not since she teamed up with Rodriguez and made the Australian Open final last year. I was ready to settle for a one-Slam-wonder status before that. Rodriguez really has injected new life into her career. Speaking of Rodriguez, Li's popularity has done wonders for his reputation, too. He coached Justine Henin, a more accomplished player than Li, but Li wins hands down when it come to popularity.
SI.com: Let's go back to her 2011 French Open title. I don't think many considered her a real contender despite a solid clay lead-up that included semifinals in Madrid and Rome. And yet she put together what was, in my opinion, one of the greatest runs to a Grand Slam title in recent memory. What do you remember of those two weeks and at what point did you think, Holy crap, she could win this thing?
Ng: To be honest, that was such a blur. I guess I was too invested during her Australian Open run (which I remember vividly) a few months earlier that I wasn't going to let myself think too far ahead. Once she beat Petra Kvitova in the fourth round, I remember thinking that it's not impossible because her quarterfinal opponent, Victoria Azarenka, hadn't been past that stage of a major and her eventual semifinal opponent, Maria Sharapova, was just beginning to take her "cow on ice" hooves off her feet (I remember her face-planting in Rome before winning the title). But in neither match did I let myself imagine that a major title was imminent.
SI.com: We all know that Li can play lights-out tennis, only to virtually fall off a cliff. Are there certain tells that signal to you that the cliff is fast approaching?
Ng: I think Rodriguez is right about her emotion. When she gets grumpy and starts mumbling in her Wuhan dialect, you know things aren't going to go well for a while. Also, when she starts grunting, I get nervous.
SI.com: What's been the most notable change for you about Li or her game?
Ng: Her forehand has a lot more topspin, with better net clearance now than a couple of years ago. Her serves look different under Rodriguez, very Justine-like. And, of course, the hilarious serve-and-volleys, especially at match point.
SI.com: Favorite Li match?
Ng: I have two. The first is her three-set comeback against No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki in the 2011 Australian Open semifinals. She had beaten Wozniacki in the fourth round the year before, but this was the most critical breakthrough for her career at that point. She didn't fold under the pressure of making a major final. My second-favorite match was her loss to Azarenka in the 2013 Australian Open final. She played with so much heart and the drama stayed with me for months.
SI.com: Least-favorite Li match?
Ng: Too many to list, given her penchant for unforced errors. A recent one would be her loss to Serena Williams in the Cincinnati semifinals last year. She just didn't believe that she could win and folded like a deck of cards.
SI.com: Favorite Li moment?
Ng: When she said during this year's Australian Open that she names her rackets Li Na 1, Li Na 2, Li Na 3 ... up to Li Na 8. I laughed for days!
SI.com: Do you think there are any media-based misconceptions about her?
Ng: Li is not funny 24/7. Most people expect her to be funny all the time.
SI.com: Can she win more Grand Slams?
Ng: Absolutely. But not without a fourth-round or quarterfinal loss from Serena.
SI.com: How much longer do you think she'll play?
Ng: Two more years, max. [When she retires] I will die a little inside.