As Li Na tells it, 2011 was both the best year of her life and the worst. She shocked the world by breaking through at the French Open to win her first major title, turning the tennis world (and her own life) completely upside down.
Tennis now had a Chinese champion, and much to our delight, she was strong-minded, charismatic, and funny. In other words, she was a marketer's dream and her win kicked off many a sleepless night for her agent, Max Eisenbud.
"I still remember after French," Li recalled, offering that broad, wry smile we've come to know. "I mean, Max couldn't sleep for, how long, two weeks, a month. So I think is tough for him."
Those sleepless nights immediately paid off but at a cost. The lucrative sponsorship deals flowed in and next thing Li knew, she was spending too much energy satisfying her backers as opposed to focusing on the thing that made them come knocking: her tennis. After winning the Roland Garros title, she would win only seven matches for the rest of the year. The scrutinous spotlight was an uncomfortable place for the 30-year old veteran and it took her half a year to process how much her life and career had changed since that glorious day in Paris.
"I was this year feeling more free, because last year I was come in I just feeling always someone just follow me and I couldn't doing so many things for my private time. So now just back to normal,” she said. “If you feeling always someone looking [at] you, security next to you, you didn't feeling very comfortable. Now I can do much practice as I can. I can concentrate on the court."
The results have borne it out. This year, Li has made the quarter-finals or better at six of her nine tournaments and progressed to the Round of 16 at both the Australian Open and the French Open. Things have steadied for her both on and off the court as she looks to begin her Wimbledon campaign against Ksenia Pervak. She's looking forward to improving on her tough second round exit last year to eventual semi-finalist Sabine Lisicki. That was a match that could have gone either way (Lisicki won 8-6 in the third) but Li insists she no longer dwells on that disappointment.
"I like to say last year I got a lot of confidence come to Wimbledon but I didn't doing well, so I wish this year I can doing good," she said.
"You really couldn't always think about what you doing the last year, because right now one year already. Time can change everything."
The one thing time doesn't change is the unpredictable British weather. When asked for her first memories of Wimbledon, Li couldn't help but laugh.
"I mean, the weather, of course. Every year is the same. Some days with rains is coming we have to wait, and sometimes we have to come to the court straightaway." Then she paused and, in her patented way, offered a touch of humour as she tipped her cap to another reliable Wimbledon tradition.
"And strawberries and cream," she deadpanned. "I have to eat, otherwise I miss something.”