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How Serena Williams and Li Na Are Ruling Women's Tennis at 32 Years Old

Merlisa Lawrence CorbettFeatured ColumnistFebruary 18, 2014

How Serena Williams and Li Na Are Ruling Women's Tennis at 32 Years Old

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    Serena Williams and Li Na at 2013 WTA Championships
    Serena Williams and Li Na at 2013 WTA ChampionshipsUncredited/Associated Press

    Serena Williams is 32. Li Na turns 32 Feb. 26. They are No. 1 and No. 2 in the WTA rankings.

    They are by no means the first pair of 30-somethings to be ranked No. 1 and No. 2. Still, their late-career reign over women's tennis is impressive.

    Even with a slew of next-big-thing players like Eugenie Bouchard, Simona Halep and Sloane Stephens trying to knock them off, Williams and Li have played more consistently solid tennis than the rest of the field.

    How are they doing this? All good things must come to an end, right?

    Eventually, Father Time will impede their progress and the other players will catch up. Until then, the younger up-and-comers, the withering challengers and barely hangers on need to take note. Right now, Williams and Li, a couple of 30-something women, are simply better than the rest. 

    Here's why. 

They Are Battle-Tested

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    Serena Williams and Li Na prepare to shake hands after semifinal match at 2013 U.S. Open.
    Serena Williams and Li Na prepare to shake hands after semifinal match at 2013 U.S. Open.Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

    When you've fought your way through real adversity and been a pioneer, conquering tennis is easier.

    Williams and Li have both overcome personal challenges. Williams endured the murder of her sister and her own life-threatening illness. Li took on the Chinese government

    In her autobiography, Li Na: My Life, Li wrote about her brief estrangement from her mother. 

    Li is the first Asian, male or female, to win a Grand Slam title. Williams is the first African-American, male or female, to win all four Grand Slam events. 

    These are a couple of strong women.

They Remain Driven to Win

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    Aaron Favila/Associated Press

    Both women have earned enough money to retire. Why continue touring on a grueling schedule, battling women 10 to 15 years younger than you?

    They want more. Williams and Li are driven to win championships. While younger players like Stephens are caving under pressure, Williams and Li appear to be getting stronger mentally. 

They Are Coachable

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    Patrick Mo and Serena Williams during practice at 2014 Australian Open.
    Patrick Mo and Serena Williams during practice at 2014 Australian Open.Scott Barbour/Getty Images

    Lately, it seems tennis stars are playing musical coaches, rotating in celebrity greats in an effort to tweak their games. Williams and Li have proved they are willing to seek sound advice.

    Williams had 13 Grand Slams under her belt when she sought out help from Frenchman Patrick Mouratoglou. Previously, she had been coached by her father and mother. Since partnering with Mouratoglou, Williams has won four more Grand Slams, including her second French Open. 

    After losing in the first round of the 2012 Olympics, Li brought in Carlos Rodriguez. Previously coached by her husband, Li improved almost instantly under Rodriguez. She's since climbed in the rankings and won the 2014 Australian Open. 

    In a sport that often anoints rising stars too soon, it's nice to see two veteran divas humble enough to take direction. 

They Have Well-Rounded Games

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    Li Na at 2013 U.S. Open.
    Li Na at 2013 U.S. Open.Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

    In the era of endless baseline rallies, Williams and Li have embraced variety in their game. Li has been incorporating more serve and volley. Williams awed the 2012 Wimbledon crowd with drop shots executed from behind the service line. 

    Of course, they can handle any baseline shootout. But they have other weapons in their arsenals to quickly end points. 

They've Upped Their Fitness Training

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    Uncredited/Associated Press

    Even non-athletes recognize that as you get older, you need to work harder to maintain optimal fitness. 

    Earlier in her career Williams relied on youth and natural ability. She was often criticized for being out of shape and unprepared. Her talent was enough to get her past the rest of the field then. She famously won the 2007 Australian Open when she was clearly overweight.

    Now she works with Mackie Shilstone, a fitness trainer who has worked with boxing champions. Li also maintains a strenuous training regimen

    While many of their opponents have youth on their side, Williams and Li work harder to beat back Father Time. 

They've Mellowed with Age

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    Li Na and Serena Williams chat before their match at 2012 WTA Championships.
    Li Na and Serena Williams chat before their match at 2012 WTA Championships.Julian Finney/Getty Images

    Li talks about her terrible temper in her autobiography. Everyone saw the worst of Williams at the 2009 U.S. Open when she threatened a line judge. 

    Both have mellowed with age. They joke more and seem to thoroughly enjoy touring more than they used to. Although they remain as competitive as ever, major on-court outbursts seem to be in the past. 

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