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Li Na

There is always something new to learn about Li Na. She’d like to try bungee jumping. She’d almost certainly be a housewife if she wasn’t playing tennis. She likes to take the battery out of her phone in a bid to make herself invisible.

“Sometimes my agent can’t even find me,” she laughed.

Even her scorelines tend to veer on the dramatic. You never quite know what you are going to get from Li.

But there is one thing that doesn’t change – how much she looks forward to the Australian Open.

“I really have to say this is my favourite Grand Slam,” she said. “I mean, I just feel every year I come back, you can see all the friends. If you come to the practice desk, you can see the same people every year. If you come to the locker-room, ‘Oh I saw friend again’.”

Li thrives almost as much on her interaction with other people as she does on winning. Who could forget the way she won over the global public at Rod Laver Arena in 2011 with her comments about her husband’s snoring, and that she had forgotten their wedding anniversary. She chose to drop jokes rather than bombs even though she had just lost her first Grand Slam final.

We all know what happened next: She won the French Open at Roland Garros a few months later at her next Grand Slam outing and sent a population of two billion to Babylon and back by becoming the first Chinese player to win one of the four biggest prizes in tennis.

It would be hard for even the most motivated of people to find some drive after that. And so it was that in 2012 she did not decorate herself in the glory she had attained in 2011.

The highlight of the year came at Cincinnati in August, Li finally winning the fourth of the three finals she had contested that year, having self-imploded in Sydney, Rome and Montreal.

But the Cincinnati success was about it, her four Grand Slam efforts coming to an end in the fourth round or earlier. At the London Olympics she was eliminated in the first round by Daniela Hantuchova.

But just as her personality tends to do, this season has already revealed something new. With coach Carlos Rodriguez having pushed her almost to breaking point during the off-season, Li won career title number seven at the Shenzen tournament in the first week of the year, and followed up with a third successive appearance in the Sydney final.

“He gave me a lot of tough times when I was training with him,” Li said about Rodriguez. “First three days, my husband didn’t come with me. After three days, I was calling him saying, ‘Please come with me.’ I was thinking already to retire after three days, because he’s really, really tough.”

But despite the grunts and groans, Li is the first to recognise that the hard work is always worth it.

“I was feeling more relaxed working with him,” she said. “He say, ‘You never know what happen on the tennis court so just try to win the first round. If you couldn’t win the first round, nothing is happen after.”

It’s worked for her in Melbourne before.

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