Li, Pierce reflect on road to Hall of Fame

  • Dan Imhoff

Li Na makes a quiet, fashionably late entrance as waiting press still shuffle into position at Melbourne Park.

There is no sudden whirring of camera shutters, the likes of which she would have come to expect at the height of her playing days.

The retired Chinese legend enters almost unnoticed, tapping fellow Tennis Hall of Fame inductee Mary Pierce on the shoulder to an excited embrace.

It’s the first time they have seen each other at Australian Open 2019.

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Li Na with her AO2014 trophy

There is an obvious mutual respect between the pair – as people, for their contrasting paths to becoming dual grand slam singles champions, even for their similarly aggressive playing styles.

Both women triumphed at Melbourne Park and Roland Garros; Li a former world No.2, Pierce reaching as high as No.3.

The Frenchwoman, now 44, acknowledged the greater challenges that would have existed for Li starting out in China, where tennis traditionally had no roots.

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Mary Pierce went all the way in 1995

“I just really admired the fact that coming from China and being … independent, a strong woman, standing out for your sport, for yourself, doing what you wanted to do, kind of like trailblazing for your country, for the sport, for also girls to play tennis, to make a pathway for them to be able to have dreams and to achieve them,” Pierce said.

“I always loved how she took the ball so early, taking the ball in the air. Personally, swing volley is one of my favourite shots. You used to do those very well.”

No longer as accustomed to the regular interviews she did in English in her playing days, Li switches between a translator, for convenience, and answering on her own, with that same dryness, for which she became renowned in post-matches speeches – often at her husband Jiang Shan’s expense.

“By the time Mary was on court, Li Na was young, she was training on court very hard,” Li’s translator said. “The training way in China was sweaty, not like elegant or fashion. That give Li Na inspiration to say, ‘That's the way to play tennis in another way’.”

It was back in 1995, when Melbourne Park was a sea of green Rebound Ace hard courts, a free-swinging Pierce captured her first slam title, thrashing Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario to hoist the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup.

Five years later, she triumphed at home on the clay, at what she deemed her most difficult grand slam, Roland Garros.

“When I won here in Melbourne, I was 20 actually,” she said. “I think that the French Open final that I lost the year previously really helped me a lot, gave me experience of what it was like to be in a grand slam final. I was very nervous for my first one.

“Coming into my second grand slam final here about six months later … I kind of knew what to expect as far as dealing with the emotions, stress, how to prepare for that match.

“Obviously winning that one, it's your first one, it's just an amazing feeling because that's your dream come true, it's what you want to achieve.”

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Li drew on similar experiences in her journey to becoming the first grand slam champion from Asia at the 2011 French Open.

Melbourne Park was long earmarked as the site at which she was destined to break through.

So when she defeated Dominika Cibulkova for the Australian Open 2014 title, it was sweet reward, having come up just short twice before.

It was a run that included a match-point saving victory over Lucie Safarova in the third round.

But it was neither the victory over Cibulkova or the pivotal match against Safarova that stood out for the now 36-year-old.

“The most memorable here in Australian Open was 2011, women's final,” Li said.

That three-set loss to Kim Clijsters was her first taste of playing a slam decider and shaped as a career-changing moment.

“Although I lost it, that gave the confidence to myself, and the inside of myself to say, I could,” she said. “I was one step away to champion of the grand slam. The best memory here is 2011.”