MELBOURNE, Australia — The question was inevitable after Li Na beat her second-straight 16-year-old opponent at the Australian Open. After sending Swiss prodigy Belinda Bencic packing with a 6-0, 7-6 (5) victory, 32-year-old Li Na was asked whether playing girls half her age made her feel “like an old lady.”
Always armed with a quick wit, Li fired back a playful barb. ”No, I think I’m [one of the youngest] in this room, right?”
There’s no reason Li should feel her age; the 2011 French Open champion and two-time Australian Open finalist is playing her best tennis these days. She had the most consistent season of her career last year, making the quarterfinals or better at every non-clay tournament she played (11 in total), and finished the season at a career-high No. 3.
But retirement does come up, whether through questions from the media or from Li herself. In an interview with The Age published this week, Li revealed she contemplated retirement last year after the French Open. Her thoughts on retirement weren’t triggered by injury or poor play, but by what she says were false Chinese media reports that came out after she lost in the second round of the French Open to Bethanie Mattek-Sands.
“I could say something, but [what] they would write down [in] the newspaper is totally wrong,” she told reporters after her second round win. “They give me a very tough time when I play the French Open, and it continued to Wimbledon.”
Her relationship with the Chinese media continues to be a tense one. It’s evident in her press conferences, where you can see her charming, jokey demeanor get deadly serious when a question comes from a Chinese reporter. She’s quick to laugh with the Western press, yet when a Chinese reporter interjects in English, even with a seemingly innocuous question, her voice takes on an intimidating hardened edge, as though she’s about to take the court for another battle.
For example: at the 2012 WTA Championships in Istanbul, she stared down a Chinese reporter while he asked her a straight-forward post-match question, and then shut him down with a short, terse answer. Curious to see if she treated Western reporters differently, I asked the exact same question. She responded with a thorough answer.
“It’s not about [all] the Chinese media,” Li clarifies. “It’s some of them. All the media was pretty good. We had very good communication. But someone, maybe they want [to become] more famous so that’s why they always write down something I never say or [spin it another] way.”
When asked to specify which specific media comments bothered her, Li declined.
“If I was speak of [it] again, maybe next day they put me wrong again,” she said. “So please don’t try to make me wrong again, because right now I really, I try to be [friendly].”
Seeded fourth this year, Li drew a clear path to the semifinals, made even easier with Petra Kvitova and Sabine Lisicki’s early losses. If she makes it that far, she could face Serena Williams, the toughest task in tennis. Li has no idea how many Australian Opens she might have left in her ground-breaking career, but for now she looks as fit and confident as ever.
“The body is more important. I cannot promise I will play another three or four years. But if I still feeling healthy, I still love this sport, I will continue.”
That’s a deal.