Doha: Li Na looks certain to build on last month’s Australian Open triumph by reaching a career-high world No 2 next week and could go on to become Serena Williams’ nearest rival.
The Chinese player is the unexpected top seed at the Qatar Open starting here on Monday after a foot inflammation caused Victoria Azarenka’s withdrawal, while a persistently troublesome back forced Williams’ exit.
It means that Azarenka, the current world No 2, will lose all the 900 ranking points she gained after beating Williams in last year’s final and that Li needs a mere nine points to climb above the Belarussian.
A more debatable issue is whether Li can maintain the improvements that have brought her best sequence of success at an age when many players start to decline.
Despite being 32 this month Li continues to combine an ability to peak well with an enduring physical resilience and an impressive capacity for striking the ball flat and hard.
Even though Williams has almost twice as many ranking points as Li, the woman from Wuhan may create significant momentum if she captures another title in her first outing since her Melbourne victory.
Much may depend on how Li has handled the Australian euphoria and the subsequent return to earth. She claims she is better prepared for dealing with a Grand Slam aftermath this time than after winning the French Open in 2011.
“I really wasn’t prepared for that,” Li said. “Now it’s different because I really prepared to win this Grand Slam.
“This time I was thinking about if I win or if I lose, what kind of life I will have, so for sure it’s different than last time.”
For a while now Li has appeared better organised, more focused and more confident, and she has given much of the credit for this to her coach Carlos Rodriguez, with whom she began working in 2012.
“Carlos has a lot of experience because before me he was coaching Justine Henin [seven times a Grand Slam winner],” said Li. “We have talked about what we should do next, of course.”
She could have a quarter-final with Ana Ivanovic, the former world No 1 from Serbia who upset Serena Williams at the Australian Open, although the biggest threat to Li appears to be Agnieszka Radwanska, the former Wimbledon finalist from Poland.
Radwanska ended Azarenka’s Australian Open defence last month before falling in the semi-final but now is seeded to go all the way to a final with Li. She has a potential quarter-final with Caroline Wozniacki, the former world No 1 from Denmark.
Another former world No 1, Jelena Jankovic, should face Radwanska’s Melbourne conqueror, Dominika Cibulkova, in the last 16, while Petra Kvitova, the former Wimbledon champion who is seeded for a semi-final with Li, could also have a say in the destination of the title.