China's Li Na prepares to defend French Open title
PARIS—Li Na's life changed dramatically a year ago, when she won the French Open to become the first Grand Slam singles champion from China.
Even dining out back home has become a big deal.
"I was in a restaurant, and suddenly, like, one lady (screamed): `Oh, she's eating!'" Li said with a smile Friday. "They think (I am) different."
Play at Roland Garros begins Sunday. Li will face Sorana Cirstea of Romania in the first round.
Li's French Open triumph in 2011 is expected to spur the development of tennis in China.
"The parents, they send the children to play the tennis," Li said. "They say: `Oh, my children at least can do better than Li Na.' Of course, I like the way they have a high goal. But if you want to make the goal, you have to (work) so hard, not only use the mouth."
The seventh-ranked Li needed half a year to adjust to her new status as a major champion, including time commitments for interviews and sponsor appearances.
She considers those six months well-spent, time used to gain experience about life in general.
"I would learn a new thing every day," Li said.
Li has not won a tournament since the French Open, and she's only reached two finals in that span.
But one of those came this month on red clay at the Italian Open, where she was the runner-up to three-time major champion Maria Sharapova.
"I have to do so many things out of the tennis court," Li said. "So after Roland Garros I was feeling I lost concentration on the court."
She also is starting to understand how to handle the pressure that comes with the expectations from more than a billion compatriots.
"I don't think if you win (a) tournament, next year you have to win again," Li said. "I (am) really not nervous."
Asked Friday whether she has any superstitions, such as frequenting the same restaurants she went to in Paris last year, Li responded that she thinks it's OK to change things up.
One example: She split with coach Michael Mortensen, who led her to last year's title, and is now again working with her husband.
Another: Switching up places to eat out, no matter what sort of attention she might draw.
"I just follow my heart," Li said. "Like maybe today, I want (to) go eat Italian? I eat Italian. I want to eat French? I will go French."