|Li Na of China holds the trophy after winning her women's singles final match against Dominika Cibulkova of Slovakia at 2014 Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne, Australia, Jan. 25, 2014. Li Na won 2-0 to claim the title of the event. (Xinhua/Li Jundong)|
By Sportswriter Wang Jimin
BEIJING, Jan. 27 (Xinhua) -- When Li Na vowed to win another major a fortnight ago, many doubted if the Chinese star could deliver it.
At 30-plus and late career though, Li lived up to her word by winning the season's very first Grand Slam at Melbourne Park.
The fourth seed's 7-6 (3), 6-0 win over Dominika Cibulkova crowned her as the Australian Open champion on her third attempt after the 2011 and 2013 finals, adding to the French Open title she won three years ago.
Li silenced those who suggested that her best was behind her, and with this victory, Li has proven she isn't a fluke.
China rejoiced over Li's latest triumph, with Web users and media praising the landmark achievement from the country's tennis trailblazer.
However, the journey from Roland Garros to Melbourne Park is not just about name and fame. It's more about failure, desperation, self-doubt and thoughts of retirement.
In the past 31 months, Li has experienced a roller-coaster life and she had spent more than a whole year rebuilding faith in her game and career.
Li had struggled to adjust to her new status as a major champion after the 2011 French Open while distractions of sponsors and media also drove her off her game. For almost a year, she had been without a title and even found it hard to reach a final.
With expectations sky-high, Li saw her form nose-diving and she fled the press conference in tears after a fourth-round Australian Open defeat to Kim Clijsters in 2012.
"I must handle the pressure of expectations from more than a billion people back home, and it's not easy," Li explained in her autobiography Du Zi Shang Chang, which literally means "Playing Myself".
The downslide stopped when Li hired Carlos Rodriguez, the former mentor of multiple Grand Slam champion Justine Henin, in mid-2012 following conflicts with her husband-cum-coach Jiang Shan.
It proved a highly effective move as Rodriguez became, as Li put it, "a savior of both my career and marriage".
"Being coach and husband is very tough to find the balance, so I need a new coach," Li said after crashing out of the first round of the London Olympics in 2012.
Encouraged by Rodriguez, Li is no longer afraid of making changes. She has been working on her net play and altering grip on serve and backhand.
She has better managed her schedule and reserved some of her best tennis for when it counted.
But Rodriguez's influence is not limited to technique as the Argentine has instilled in the player a self-belief that had been lacking.
"I'm very proud of her but at the same time there's still big work to do because she still doesn't realize how good she is," said Rodriguez earlier last season.
"It's also up to her desire that she is gonna have, go back to work and improve different things on court, but the most difficult work is inside."
In the first tournament after joining forces with him (despite communicating with him only electronically), Li reached the final in Montreal. The next week she won an event in Cincinnati, joined midweek by the Argentine.
Since then, Li was unstoppable. She finished last year as the world No.3 and started the new season by defending the Shenzhen Open title, before racking up her second Grand Slam.
"When last year I said I wanted to be top three, nobody believed me," Li said after winning the Australian Open. "At the beginning of this year when I said I wanted to win another Grand Slam, I heard laughter. The more important thing is that I believed, Carlos believed, my team believed."
"Every day he would say 'Believe in yourself, believe in yourself.' But if I was really doing something wrong, he would say 'This is wrong, you have to change'," Li said.
The victory raised her to within 11 points of Victoria Azarenka, who defeated Li in the final to win at the Melbourne Park last year, with Serena Williams remaining the world No.1.
With two Grand Slam titles to her name, a highly professional team behind her and a stronger mindset, Li is able to dream bigger.
"I want to win more Grand Slams," she said. "It's easy to say than do. But I think you are a tennis athlete, you have to know how much work has to be done to win one Grand Slam."
Li was the first Chinese to win a Grand Slam singles title, which was watched by 116 million people on TV at her home country.
The sudden fame turned Li into a megastar and then came pressure too much to bear.
Things are differnet now.
Li said: "When I won the French Open, I really didn't prepare for that. I didn't know what I should do after the win. Also nobody told me what I should do.
"I think now it's different because I prepared to win this Grand Slam. Also Carlos, he has a lot of experience because before he was coaching Justine Henin. We will talk about what we should do."
Li, the oldest women's champion in the Australian Open who turns 32 next month, usually uses the same line to respond to the age questions - "I'm not old!"
"At the start of the season everybody is talking about the age," she said. "I would like to say age is nothing. I still can win the Grand Slam...so happy about my age. I got more experience on the court."
Li is improving at an age when many players are deemed to be in decline.
She warned her rivals that she has more aces up her sleeve.
"I think I can do more," she said.