U.S. Open: Getting to Know Li Na

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U.S. Open: Getting to Know Li Na
(Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

Name: Li, Na

Country: P.R. China

Current WTA ranking: 19

Career titles: Two

Plays: Right-handed, two-handed backhand


This year's U.S. Open has seen many new faces in the quarterfinals on the women's side, including the "upset queen" Melanie Oudin. There are only four seeds remaining at this stage, the lowest of which is Na Li from China. As the 18th seed, she has progressed smoothly through the draw without dropping a set.

 

In fact, she was only pushed to a tie-breaker in her opening match of the tournament, and then only allowed four, six, and five games apiece to her next three opponents. While her wins were not in the category of "upsets," she is actually enjoying the best run in the U.S. Open so far.

 

She next faces the "comeback queen" Kim Clijsters, the U.S. Open champion in 2005, who is only playing in her third tournament since returning to the women's tour this summer. Their current head-to-head stands at 3-1 in favor of Clijsters, though Li won their last encounter in 2007.


Li turned professional in 1999 at the age of 17. In her early career, she mainly played in the ITF Circuit, amassing 14 singles titles and 15 doubles titles in a little more than three years.

 

However, from April 2002 to May 2004, she did not play in any event. This complete absence was somewhat strange since she did not appear to be suffering from any serious injury before her sabbatical.


In 2004, Li made a welcome return to the women's tour unranked. After winning several more ITF events, she captured her first WTA singles title at Guangzhou, defeating Jelena Jankovic in the process. She became the first Chinese woman ever to win a WTA event. By the end of that year, she already broke into the WTA top 80.


Starting in 2005, Li played only on the WTA tour. She steadily increased her ranking to 33 before an ankle injury forced her out for several months. Unfortunately, this seemed to become somewhat of a pattern for her career as she wasn't able to compete for a long period of time due to various injuries.


In 2006, the only season Li was able to compete in all four Grand Slams, she had her best result by reaching the quarterfinals at Wimbledon, where she became the first Chinese woman ever to be seeded (27) in a Grand Slam.

 

She defeated Svetlana Kuznetsova in the third round, but lost to none other than Kim Clijsters in the quarterfinals. She also reached the fourth round in the U.S. Open that year, her best effort there before this year, losing to the eventual champion, Maria Sharapova.


At the beginning of 2007, Li made to the semifinals at Sydney, defeating Elena Dementieva in the second round and losing again to Clijsters, whom she also lost to in the same tournament a year earlier. Her ranking subsequently rose to No. 16, a career high.

 

Later that year at the Miami Masters, she finally scored her first win against Clijsters in the third round. Unfortunately, a serious rib injury forced her to miss the entire second half of 2007.


Li returned to the tour at the beginning of 2008 with a bang, winning her second WTA title at Gold Coast. But she suffered a right knee injury in the process, from which she never recovered fully to this date. At the Beijing Olympics, she scored two big wins over Kuznetsova and Venus Williams before falling to Dinara Safina in the semifinals.

 

She was then defeated by Vera Zvonareva in the bronze medal final, finishing fourth, the best result for a Chinese woman in singles at Olympics. She matched her then-best effort at the U.S. Open by reaching the fourth round, losing to the Beijing Olympics gold medalist Dementieva.


The same knee injury forced Li to miss the earlier part of 2009, including the Australian Open. But she had her best result at the French Open, reaching the fourth round, thus returning to the top 20. She is currently the top ranked Asian player on the women's tour. In fact, the current top three female Asian players are all from China, with Zheng Jie ranked 22nd and Peng Shuai ranked 44th.


Li is very athletic and has very solid groundstrokes. Her shots are fairly heavy and she loves to be on the offensive end. She has fairly good foot speed and is capable of hitting winners from all corners of the court. With her doubles background, she is also quite comfortable at the net. Her biggest weakness is her usual high number of unforced errors in a match. She also suffers from short periods of loss of concentration during a match.


With her quarterfinal effort so far, Li is likely to rise up the rankings after the U.S. Open, possibly matching or even surpassing her career best ranking of 16. If she stays focused and injury free, it is not impossible for her to be the first Chinese women to crack the WTA top 10.


Good luck, Li Na!

 

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