There has been much written about Li Na’s luck and Lucie Safarova’s missed centimetres.
Leading the fourth seed 6-1 6-5 in the eye of the first week heatwave, Safarova, match point up, saw a space down the line and went for it. But she missed it. Li survived.
Eight days later, Li had the Rod Laver Arena and the world in hysterics as she accepted the Australian Open trophy, her second Grand Slam title at the third time of asking here in Melbourne.
Third time lucky. And all thanks to Safarova’s missed centimetres.
“I think I should send an email to Safarova – and send her a smile as well,” Li said, going along with the joke.
“Last year I was falling down, is unlucky, so maybe they gave the luck back this year,” she laughed.
But Li has a different idea of ‘being lucky.’
“Yes I’m lucky, I can play my tennis, I love my tennis life, I can be on court to play, I’m healthy,” she told a group of reporters late in the early hours of Sunday morning, the Daphne Akhurst trophy glittering proudly next to her.
“But if you have to win the title, it is not luck.”
As she rightly said, luck may have saved her that match point. But luck did not win her the rest of the match. Or the next four matches.
“During the time I really didn’t think about this [being] lucky,” Li explained, calm yet content, despite this being the last of several exhaustive interviews.
“Because after I saved the match point I still have to play another one and a half hour on the court, you still have the chance to lose the match. And that day was very tough, play 43 degrees for three hours.”
Belief and hard work, not luck, won her this tournament. And if Li has learned anything since winning the French Open in 2011, it is that belief and hard work are not always easy.
‘Sport changes everything.’ That’s what her French Open victory t-shirt read. It was a moment of promise, expectation. Li was China’s first Grand Slam champion, a place in history that she will never lose. ‘Let the revolution begin’ we wrote. Her life would change, she knew that. But she did not know the extent of the churns that rollercoaster would take her on.
Three years on, her Australian Open victory t-shirt preaches a different sentiment: ‘My heart has no limits.’
Far be it from us to allude to its meaning. But the difference between the two shows how far this effervescent woman from Wuhan has come.
“I didn’t need to prove [to anyone],” she said, asked if winning a second title will help with the pressure at home. “Because if they really understand the tennis, you don’t have to prove them, they will understand. You don’t have to waste your time.”
Time. Li’s old friend that she enjoys making fun of, once calling it ‘just a piece of paper.’
“Age means nothing,” she said again on Saturday night. But experience means something. Experience of these occasions, of the expectation, of what matters and what doesn’t. She has them now.
“When I was win French Open, nobody tell me what I should do,” she said. “I didn’t have any experience. I didn’t know how much life will change. At least this is the second one. And Carlos has a lot of experience so he will give me some instruction.”
Perhaps a defining factor has also been learning that tennis is not everything, despite what her 2011 t-shirt said.
It is well reported that Li has been through her tough times, contemplating retirement, struggling with public perception. Not enjoying her tennis.
“Twice,” she said, when asked when those low moments have been. “Around Olympics one time, and last year from French Open to Wimbledon. So many things are involved, not just about that I can’t keep the good tennis, so many things out of the tennis court.
“Carlos was saying, believe in yourself. He didn’t tell me exactly what I should do. He would say, you have to plan for yourself, you have to know yourself, what you should do. First I have to listen, then I have to into my mind.
“But I think I have changed a lot, because before I never share the feeling with my team. But now I feeling nervous, I say 'oh I’m nervous'. Because I feeling I am strong enough I can handle everything.”
And so, much like when a healthy person can never contemplate being ill, those moments are far from her mind.
“In this moment, I will think about my tennis only going up,” she said. “But in tennis, everything can happen. But right now for me, most important is to enjoy for a couple of days. Take the trophy back to Wuhan for Chinese New Year. Show her [her mother] one second, then I bring to my house.”
She is a strong character, a wealthy woman, a popular champion. And a comedian too, as we very well know.
There was time for one last laugh before we departed, Li to celebrate, the rest of us to sleep.
“Are you hungry?” one reporter asked, pausing to ask about more titles, world No.1 rankings and such.
“Of course, I didn’t have dinner,” Li fired straight back. And then she grinned.