Tennis star Li comes back with new lease of life

By Zhao Rui (China Daily)
Updated: 2007-12-19 08:56

GUANGZHOU - Even experienced sportswriters can be surprised by the exploits of athletes. Like when Yao Ming was drafted No 1 by the Houston Rockets, for example, or when Kobe Bryant scored 81 points. It is the same kind of jaw-dropping reaction the icy Li Na got when she sang a lullaby to a group of children she didn't even know.

Li Na 

Despite being voted as the player "hardest to deal with" by Chinese reporters, Li sat among some 50 orphans at the Guangzhou Children's Welfare Center last Friday, bearing chocolate bars and candies, and sang to the youngsters "Baby Swallow", one of China's favorite lullabies.

Coming off a devastating injury that sidelined her for six months and threatened her Olympic dream, Li has learned to appreciate the little things. She is thankful for what she has and hungrier than ever for the Beijing Games.

"I can't tell you how much I missed tennis when I was out," she said. "I can't believe I am here again, to serve and run on the court, and I am emotional to feel everything that I used to take for granted.

"I am more motivated now and I feel my desire for the Olympics is bigger than ever before."

This year was tough for Li, who had to put down the racket because of an inflammation in her ribs just as she was approaching the pinnacle of her career.

As the country's top-ranked singles player and the first Chinese woman ever to make the quarterfinals at a Grand Slam event, the 26-year-old from Hubei compiled her best-ever record during the first five months of the year. She reached a career-best No 16 world ranking in January, becoming the first Chinese to be ranked so high.

With her solid groundstroke and aggressive mindset, Li made it into a Tier I event semifinal twice, at Sydney and Indian Wells, and earlier in the season beat four top 10 players: Jelena Jankovic, Elena Dementieva, Dinara Safina and Kim Clijsters.

She also had the honor of becoming the third Chinese to pass the $1 million mark in career prize-money earnings.

All these things were great, she said, but it all came crashing down when Li injured her ribs at the WTA grass event in Birmingham in May and slipped to world No 30.

An inflammation followed the injury and it was so painful that she could not even walk for almost a month.

"I just cannot believe what happened to me in the summer," Li said. "Suddenly the world becomes so quiet, no rankings, no points, no more games. I was just lying on the bed and thinking about my ribs.

"I was anxious and kept on asking people when I can come back. But what I got is just wait and wait. They were really dark days for me."

After months of waiting, Li returned to the court last month and joined the national team's winter training camp in Jiangmen where she took part in some rehab trainings with her husband and coach, Jiang Shan.

Though she still won't play in any competitions until January, Li has made what she called "a big improvement".

"When I went through maybe the worst injury in my career, each match is like a bonus," she said. "I am very calm now, and I will try to enjoy my time on the court more than ever before. For me, every second counts."

It might take Li some time to recover to her best form, but she has learned how to be patient.

"I know I won't get back my form very soon, but I am not in a hurry," she said. "My ribs hurt a little sometimes and stamina is my biggest problem.

"I think I need more time to get used to the speed of the games, but I won't push myself too hard and I hope I can return to the top 20 after the tournaments in Australia."

Li will start her 2008 comeback at Mondial Australian Women's Hardcourts in Gold Coast on January 1 before heading to Melbourne for the prestigious Australian Open.

National team coach Jiang Hongwei believes his player will find her rhythm very soon.

"What delights me most is that Li has become a more mature person through the injury," Jiang said. "As long as she is mentally solid, I am sure she will be back to her usual level in six weeks."

Adding to the good news, Li will be joined on her next trip by compatriot Zheng Jie, who began her comeback from a left ankle injury last weekend, and claimed the doubles title at the China Tennis Grand Prix in Guangzhou.

The 24-year-old Zheng played her first tournament since June with partner Yan Zi. The pair, which won the women's doubles at the Australian Open and Wimbledon in 2006, will return to the international stage at the Moorilla Hobart International in Australia on January 7.

"I feel great for the return" Zheng said. "What I'm going to do is keep healthy and play my best tennis at the Beijing Olympics."

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