The late-blooming 28-year-old will play top seed Caroline Wozniacki on Thursday for a place in the final of the Australian Open and a tilt at becoming her country’s first singles grand slam champion.
Her mother will not be among the millions tuning in back home, however, as she finds her daughter’s matches too harrowing to watch.
“I think all mothers are amazing, but I hope some day later that I can become a person like her,” Li told Reuters in an interview on a rooftop lounge overlooking Melbourne Park.
“People ask me what I want to do after tennis. I actually want to be a housewife and look after my family well and let them grow up with nice memories.
“Because my father died when I was young — he passed away when I was 14 — my mother was the only one to look after me, right up until now.
“No matter how much hardship she endured, she never let me suffer any bitterness.”
Li is one of China’s “golden flowers”, the handful of top women players whose success in a self-centred game inevitably conflicted with their country’s Soviet-style sports system.
After years of clashes over pay and training arrangements, Li and her national team mates Zheng Jie, Peng Shuai and Olympic doubles gold medallist Yan Zi were permitted to organise their own touring, coaches and schedules two years ago.
While criticised by conservatives in the Communist Party-ruled country, the decision was validated when Li and Zheng broke through to the semi-finals at Melbourne Park last year.
Li’s hard-won freedoms brought her best results on the tour, but also raised expectations. The pressure took its toll and Li broke with her coach Thomas Hogstedt last year, later admitting she had felt “depressed” on the tour.
“No matter what you’ve achieved, everyone has high demands and high expectations of you,” said Li, who made the quarter-finals of Wimbledon last year but was bundled out of the U.S. Open in the first round.
“People will always think I should be doing better than what I’m doing now.
“They may not be satisfied with where I’m at, but I’ll continue to work hard. You have to satisfy yourself to be able to satisfy other people.
“If you listen to people say you’re no good at this or that, then that’s what you’ll become.”
Ominously for her rivals, Li is enjoying her tennis. She is now coached by her husband and former university sweetheart Jiang Shan.
Once ravaged by injuries, Li’s fitness coach Alex Stober, a former trainer to Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, has kept her free of niggles and fit enough to scramble against the best baseline pounders in the game.
Li now rides a 10-match winning streak into her semi-final against Wozniacki, who she thumped in the fourth round last year.
While her compatriot Peng accompanied her to the round of 16, Zheng missed the tournament due to injury and Li laments the lack of Chinese company in the draw.
Li endured the gruelling training regime of the Chinese Tennis Association and had to surrender most of her earnings to the state for years. She thinks the younger generation are getting an easier ride.
“The problem is the conditions are too favourable for young players these days,” said Li. “They don’t need to pay out too much to get a lot back.
“Not like us back in the day when you really needed to give up a lot. Things come a lot easier for the new generation.
“After we broke through, a lot more people starting paying attention to tennis, and there were a lot more sponsors.
“Even the Chinese Tennis Association started giving more opportunities to young players. But I don’t think they’ve really grasped these opportunities with both hands.”
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