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Chinese Grand Slam winner aiming high after a major change of attitude
Li Na believes a stronger mindset and not her revamped game will see her soar to greater heights.
While the Chinese tennis star is adjusting her game between the lines, a more profound change is happening between her ears.
Inspired by her Argentine coach, Carlos Rodriguez, Li tweaked her style of play in winter training and reaped immediate success when she claimed her seventh WTA title at the first Shenzhen Gemdale Open on Saturday.
Li's new approach may have helped sharpen her game, but she expects greater control of her emotions will carry her to the top of the women's game.
"Since becoming a Grand Slam champion, a lot of things have changed in my life. And the most radical one happened here," Li said pointing to her head during an interview with China Daily in the players' lounge after her straight sets semi victory over compatriot Peng Shuai on Friday.
After becoming the first Asian player to win a Grand Slam, the 2011 French Open winner found herself crushed by the pressure of more than a billion people, who expected her to win every tournament after that.
Off-court distractions like endorsement activities and media requests exacerbated the situation and Li's form slumped dramatically in the last half of that year.
"I had never been there before, nor anybody on my team. So I didn't know how to handle it until Carlos brought his seven-time Grand Slam-winning experience with (Justine) Henin," Li said.
"After all those ups and downs, I think I am a more mature player now, thanks to Carlos' advice. He told me to take everything easy and be relaxed on court."
During Li's title run in Shenzhen she still appeared to be miserable at times and complained to her coach and husband after poor shots. However, she was over any particular misery by the time she reached the baseline, where she whispered to herself and regained focus.
The mental meltdowns which used to affect her in close matches were not evident in Shenzhen either, as Li managed to control herself in a grinding final when Czech Klara Zakopalova rallied back from a set down to force a third.
Li said she has learnt to accept mistakes on the court although she admits she remains a perfectionist.
"I can't change my character entirely, but I've gotten better," said the 30-year-old. "I won't get mad about errors any more. I know a mistake can happen and I still have the chance to make it up."
Off the court, the Hubei native, once known as a maverick for her outspoken ways and frequent bust-ups with the tennis association, is also changing.
Thanks to a mutual understanding, Li has smoothed her relationship with the local governing body, which forced her to represent the province at the 2009 National Games despite her knee injury and loaded pro schedule.
She asked for the local authority's permission to skip the 2013 National Games and it was granted.
"It's not like the old way where they ordered and I followed," Li said. "It's negotiable now. I can have my own ideas and discuss them with them. It's more professional."
Li's will to improve her sometimes contentious relationship with the media is more proof of her maturity.
Known for her hot temper, Li's post-match press conferences have sometimes been confrontational and the temperamental star was known to fire questions back at reporters in response to queries she felt were out of order.
In her Chinese autobiography entitled Playing Myself, which was published last year, Li revealed she shivered when she saw her name in newspapers during her low period as she was upset about some "made-up" stories.
"The reason why I chose to major in journalism in college was because I wanted to know why the media made untrue reports about me," said Li, who temporally retired in 2002 to study at the Huazhong University of Science and Technology.
"But now I understand that it's their job (to make sensational headlines). Ten people will have 10 different thoughts on your words, so there are different stories. And If I treat them badly, I don't expect positive reports."
In Shenzhen, Li answered every question patiently and in detail even when it was repeated.
When asked about her fickleness towards the media, Li responded with no-harm, witty jokes.
Trying hard to improve her often-tumultuous relationship with the media, Li said she expects to behave like a Grand Slam champion off the court as well.
"I am now aware that I shouldn't do or say whatever I want as I did before, because you don't know who is watching. I think I should take more social responsibility and I will try to be a good role model for youngsters by minding my behavior."
(China Daily 01/07/2013 page24)