The Li Na Conundrum

Li Na’s inconsistency is one of the WTA’s greatest mysteries.

Li Na? Or Na Li?

The western world’s difficulty with the naming order of the former Roland Garros winner is sometimes the least of her problems. She (basically) carries the burden of an entire nation, becoming the first Asian woman to win a major title in singles. She graced the cover of TIME Magazine, and was named by the publication as one of the 100 most influential people in the world this year. Recently called “the most important player of the decade” by WTA CEO Stacey Allaster, Li’s success has been instrumental in the rise of tennis in the Asia/Pacific region, as well as spearheading the concerted marketing efforts of the WTA in the area.

Nothing in Li’s career had marked her as a particularly strong clay court prior to her run to the Roland Garros title in 2011. She had previous contested just four French Opens, reaching three third rounds and one fourth round. Clay so often rewards patience, and this is a virtue that Li does not always possess. When Li is having a good day, she puts on a show. she’s capable of blowing anyone on the WTA off the court and going toe-to-toe with the game’s biggest hitters. The surface is irrelevant, as she can hit through any conditions. When she’s off, however, the match becomes more of a struggle against herself than any opponent.

After reaching the final in Stuttgart and losing a decent match to Maria Sharapova, Li struggled to adapt to the conditions in Madrid when facing lucky loser Madison Keys in the opening round; while no excuse, Li was no doubt befuddled by the last-minute withdrawal of Tamira Paszek, and received little to no advanced warning that she’d be playing Keys. In a 6-3, 6-2 defeat, Li amassed a total of 34 unforced errors, while balancing that out with just eight winners.

After playing one of the most dramatic matches of the 2012 season with Maria Sharapova in the finals at the Foro Italico last year, Li no doubt returned to Rome in 2013 looking to avenge some of the bad memories from a season ago. Li brushed aside countrywoman Zheng Jie in her opening match, delivering a clinical performance against a player she had previously struggled against; prior to their second round match, Zheng had won four of five previous meetings.

On the other side of the net in Rome on Thursday was Jelena Jankovic, a woman who has won six titles on clay in her career; this haul includes back-to-back titles in Rome at the height of her career in 2007 and 2008. The match was perhaps a microcosm of Li’s career; she was strikingly brilliant for a point or two, but largely flat, wild and unimpressive. Jankovic triumphed by a 7-6(2), 7-5 scoreline but it was perhaps Li’s stat line that was the most shocking of all: 31 winners and 62 unforced errors.

Statistics so rarely tell the real story regarding the dynamics of a tennis match, but tend to be incredibly accurate when Li steps on court. What was Keys’ tally in Madrid? Seven winners, 11 unforced errors. Jankovic’s was no better in Rome, as the Serbian needed just 16 winners (while making 29 errors of her own) to come out the victor. When Li is playing well, she forces her opposition to outplay her; when she’s not, however, they are only required to be just shy of ordinary.

While she has shown that she is able to shine on the biggest stages multiple times, there have been just as many or more when she has failed to rise to the occasion. At the age of 31, Li isn’t getting any younger. Erratic performances have categorized her less-than-traditional road to the top, and she can no longer afford consistently disappointing letdowns like in Madrid and Rome. A Jekyll-and-Hyde performer on court, it’s almost as if she still doesn’t know what kind of player she can be.

(For the record, it’s Li Na. We can at least be sure of that.)

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