January 25, 2014

Thirty Is the New Twenty

It's become clear over the last several years that age is only a number in the sport of tennis -- at thirty-two years of age Serena Williams is the oldest top-ranked women's player in history, and Roger Federer, born just a few weeks earlier, is consistently a threat at all the Majors, even reaching the semis this fortnight in Melbourne. Superior fitness, a more responsible schedule, and better training have allowed these players not only to keep up in a sport once ruled by youngsters, but to actually dominate it.

But Serena and Roger broke out on the scene long ago -- Williams winning the U.S. Open at just seventeen and Federer claiming a Wimbledon crown at twenty-two. Even their biggest rivals got their starts early -- Junior champion Victoria Azarenka was twenty-two when she won her first Australian Open and Rafael Nadal was only nineteen when he rocked the red clay of Roland Garros.

What you see far less often is a player only start to reach her stride after years -- and years -- on Tour, and that's just what Na Li has been able to do.

Pro since 1999, she'd only won a pair of titles in her first ten years on the circuit, spending most of her early twenties ranked in the mid-double digits. It wasn't until 2008, after her break from the Chinese government, when she really began to find her game. She beat Svetlana Kuznetsova and Venus Williams in the Beijing Olympics, stunned Serena in Stuttgart that fall and ended the year just outside the top twenty. She still flew largely under the radar but at least she was hanging around late in tournaments, really putting up a fight against the top players. In 2010 she made her way to the Australian Open semis as a sixteenth seed and a year later went one better, taking the first set off Kim Clijsters in the championship match. That same season, at twenty-nine, she stopped Francesca Schiavone from defending her Roland Garros crown and claimed her maiden Major crown in Paris, becoming the first ever Asian Grand Slam champion.

It would have been easy for her to bow out of the game after that. Though Li's remained in the top ten since then, she struggled with injury over the years, skipping early spring tournaments last year and even considering retirement over the summer. But she found her form again over the summer, reaching the quarters at Wimbledon and the Final Four in New York. She won her first four matches at the WTA Championships, too, taking a set off Serena in the Istanbul final and ending the year at #3 in the world.

So far in 2014, Li has been unstoppable. After saving match point against Lucie Safarova in the third round, she's rolled over her opponents, dropping just two games to always-tricky Ekterina Makarova a match later and taking the first five games against Cinderella semifinalist Genie Bouchard on Thursday. In the title match against Melbourne breakthrough Dominika Cibulkova, she was pushed early -- she gave back an early lead with a couple double faults and failed to serve out the first set. But she eked out the tiebreak she went on to dominate the first-time finalist from all angles in the second -- she fired off twelve winners to the Slovak's four and didn't allow her one point on second serve. After just over ninety minutes, the world #4 had closed out he match, winning her second Grand Slam trophy.

The victory makes Li only the sixth active player with more than only Major under her belt, but more importantly seems to have vaulted her to a new level in her career. The late bloomer has won seven of her nine titles since the age of twenty-eight -- compare that to champions like Martina Hingis, Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters who'd already retired at least once by that age. And she doesn't show any signs of slowing down.

Whether there's another Slam in her future remains to be seen, of course, but at nearly thirty-two Li has cemented herself as a real threat to every player in the field -- a distinction few would have given her just four years ago. She certainly has the potential to keep adding to her trophy count, too -- and the longer she lasts, the better it will ultimately be for the game.

1 comment:

Jon said...

This was a super fun tournament to watch Li Na and she definitely seems to be at home in Australia.

You're definitely right about here flying under the radar and it's super interesting to watch players like her bloom later in their careers. This will be a fun and exciting year for her and hopefully we see a whole lot more of her in the later rounds of Grand Slams.

No matter how you slice it I'm excited for the kickoff of the season and we've already been treated to some great tennis!!