A change of coach has given 2011 French Open champion Li a new lease of life, writes Sun Xiaochen.
A lack of major titles in 2012 didn't mean it was a bad year for Chinese tennis as solid progress continued on and off the court. There was no Grand Slam title, like Li Na's breakthrough at the French Open last year, and that may have disappointed fans, along with the women's players' early exit at the London Olympics.
However, it wasn't all gloom and doom.
Benefiting from new coach Carlos Rodriguez's approach, 30-year-old Li rediscovered her winning formula with more consistency, while her male counterparts finally reached the Grand Slam stage with historic breakthroughs.
Older, and more mature, Li looks set to peak again.
Ending her year with one WTA title and the world No 7 spot, Li left the court for holidays last month in a much better mood than she was in last year, when her form fell away dramatically after the French Open.
The Hubei native got her 2012 season off to a flying start in Sydney with a runner-up finish before squandering four match points to lose her Australian Open fourth-round battle against veteran Kim Clijsters on the eve of Chinese New Year.
After that loss, Li fought back with four consecutive quarterfinal finishes (Indian Wells, Miami, Stuttgart and Madrid) over the next three months before reaching the fourth round at Roland Garros, where she fell to eventual champion Maria Sharapova of Russia.
Overcoming the summer disappointments at Wimbledon (second round) and the Olympics (first round), Li hired Belgium great Justine Henin's former mentor Rodriguez and soon won her sixth career WTA title in Cincinatti before making the semis at the China Open, which secured her a berth at the prestigious year-end WTA Championships.
Although Li didn't go beyond the fourth round at any Grand Slam event this year, she is now showing the kind of form which could see her crack the top three.
Li attributed the change to pressure-free cooperation with Rodriguez.
"He is the kind of person who looks relaxed every moment. I used to feel very nervous before matches, and I was unwilling to share my feelings with the team," Li said during the WTA Championships in Istanbul.
"He changed me a lot. Now I can share my thoughts with him when I feel uncomfortable in training. I am happy to have Carlos on my team because I think he is a positive person and brings a lot of positive things to the whole team."
Elsewhere on the women's side, neither veteran Zheng Jie nor world No 40 Peng Shuai produced much flair on the tour or at the London Games.
Zheng won her fourth career singles title in Auckland, New Zealand, in January but bowed out early at events the rest of the year, while Peng had career-best performances at the French Open (third round) and Wimbledon (fourth round), but little else to show for her efforts.
The highly-regarded Zheng-Peng pairing lost to the Russian combo of Maria Kirilenko and Nadia Petrova in the Olympic quarters and thus failed to repeat the golden feat of Li Ting and Sun Tiantian at the 2004 Athens Games.
Men's rise even bigger
Despite a huge gap between them and their female compatriots in the world rankings, China's male players are beginning to make strong moves forward through the agency of foreign coaching.
Wu Di (pictured), the world No 183 player from Hubei, made history by winning the Asia-Pacific Australian Open wild-card playoff in October to become the first man from Chinese mainland to qualify for the main draw of a Grand Slam.
Working with new French coach David Moreau, Wu consistently reached the later rounds of ATP Futures tournaments and improved from No 421 to a career-best No 176 during the China Open.
Wu, who just returned from a six-week camp in France with Moreau, said he's fully aware of the pressure that will be on him when he makes his debut at Melbourne Park next month.
"If I can play up to 80 percent of my ability there, I will be happy," said Wu, a quarterfinalist at the Australian Open's junior event in 2007. "I know there will be many uncertainties and pressures on my first try. I will try to get through it without being crushed by that."
The 21-year-old's Open entry stole headlines from fellow countryman Zhang Ze's quarterfinal run at an ATP 500 tournament — the China Open.
Zhang stunned world No 11 Richard Gasquet of France in Beijing to become the first man from Chinese mainland to beat a top-20 player and improved his ranking to No 154 during that week — a new high for a Chinese male.
The 22-year-old will head Down Under for the Australian Open qualifiers under the guidance of Frenchman Guillaume Peyre. His two qualifying wins at the French Open and Wimbledon last season will serve him well as he faces higher-ranked opponents.
"I started getting used to the competition and atmosphere on that stage. I have no fear, and play much more relaxed against top players now," said the Nanjing native.
Peyre said: "It's very important for them to go there and see, through experience, what Grand Slam qualification events and the main draws are like. It's very good experience."