Li Na saw much of herself in a young player on the women’s tour early last year.
The two-time Grand Slam champion didn’t hesitate to identify Japan’s Naomi Osaka as the player with a bright future.
So Li, set to be inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in July along with fellow former Australian Open champions Mary Pierce and Yevgeny Kafelnikov, was not surprised when Osaka won the 2018 U.S. Open.
The 21-year-old Osaka has reached the quarterfinals at the Australian Open this week.
“When I first saw Naomi Osaka play, I thought she was really calm, very mature on court,” Li said in comments translated during a news conference at the Australian Open. “She was so focused on her game itself, no pressure, point by point. That quality and the player’s focus really impressed.”
Li said it was a loss to Kim Clijsters in her first Grand Slam final on Rod Laver Arena that became the catalyst for her major title breakthrough on the same court three years later.
“The most memorable here in Australian Open was the 2011 women’s final. Although I lost, that gave me confidence and the inside of myself to say I could to do it,” she said. “I was one step away to be champion of the Grand Slam.”
Li would lose another Australian singles final two years later to Victoria Azarenka, again after winning the opening set, before she eventually lifted the trophy by sweeping aside Dominika Cibulkova in straight sets in the 2014 final.
As a mother — she had a daughter in 2015 and a son the following year — Li marvels at how Serena Williams and Azarenka juggle their tennis commitments while travelling the world with young children.
“Yeah, I can’t imagine, like Serena or Azarenka, same time play, then care about the family,” she said. “I couldn’t do that.”
Li was a trailblazer in women’s tennis, becoming the first player from China to win a WTA title — in 2004 — and the first from Asia to win a Grand Slam singles title when she won the 2011 French Open. She also won the Australian Open in 2014 after losing two previous finals here.
Todd Martin, International Tennis Hall of Fame chief executive, credits Li’s international emergence as a powerful influence on the sport.
“I think the Hall of Fame is not just a body that recognizes the greats of the game, it’s the steward of the history of our sport,” Martin said. “If you look forward 50 years, 100 years, 200 years, one can only imagine that the sport will continue to thrive, and it will be a massive sport in China and throughout Asia.”