Ann Li: Learning The Economy Of Winning Tennis

Ann Li (photo: Abierto GNP Seguros)

MONTERREY/WASHINGTON, March 19, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

Ann Li goes about the economy of winning her tennis matches in a quiet but positive manner that exudes confidence in her abilities. In just a couple of years, Li has been doing the little things well and guess what? Her world ranking has been the beneficiary of her success.

“I’ve always been kind of quiet on the court; I’m working on it! That’s just my personality,” the friendly, soft-spoken 20-year-old Li told Tennis TourTalk during a Zoom interview this week in Monterrey, Mexico. “I’m very calm and just relaxed off the court. I think it shows on the court, but it’s definitely a different story with my legs. I try to move as much as I can.

“I think body language is something I’ve worked on for a while and it’s turning out pretty well right now. Just staying positive and playing one point at a time. I think that’s a big thing for me.”

In just her third tournament of the year, the 72nd-ranked American is into her second quarterfinal following her 6-4, 6-3 victory over 93rd-ranked Tamara Zidansek of Slovenia Thursday afternoon at the Abierto GNP Seguros, a WTA 250 outdoor hard-court event this week in Monterrey, Mexico. After easily winning the opening set, she recovered from down 1-3 and won the final five games of the second set to coast to another triumph.

Li hit 34 winners – including three aces – and converted five of seven break-point opportunities against Zidansek, who also committed 31 unforced errors. Li outpointed her opponent 72-56. Next, she will face No. 3 seed Zheng Saisai of China, who advanced with a 6-1, 6-2 win over Zhu Lin from China.

Asked what she was most proud of after her eighth victory of the year, Li said: Just playing my game and being as aggressive as I can and putting my physicality into every point is what helped me the most. Sticking to one point at a time, doing the best that I can. …

“I’m starting to feel more comfortable – I’m proud how I have adapted – and that’s all I can ask. Hopefully I can execute well in my next match.”

A native of King of Prussia, Pa., Li trains at the USTA National Campus in Orlando, Fla., when she’s not on tour. She comes from a sports family that includes an aunt, who was a professional speed skater in China. Her father played collegiate soccer and her mother ran track and field in college.

Growing up, the 5-foot-7 (170cm) Li idolized Roger Federer. She still emulates the Swiss maestro, taking a business-like approach to her game, hitting solid right-handed ground strokes with efficiency and purpose.

“Yes, my idol is Federer. I’ve looked up to Federer for ever now,” Li unabashedly admitted. “I love the way he plays and I try to implement his game into my game in certain ways and to try to be myself on the court. Also, there’s things to take away from Djokovic and Nadal as well. I’m just trying to take in all the good stuff (laughs).”

It should come as no surprise that grass is Li’s favorite surface after reaching the junior girls’ final of Wimbledon in 2017, where she lost a three-set battle to in an all-American battle against Claire Liu. Two weeks later, Li won her first professional title on the ITF circuit, a $15k tournament in Evansville, Ind. While she picked up a couple of additional ITF titles in the next two years, Li kept falling short in her quest to qualify for Grand Slams at Wimbledon and the US Open.


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Finally, that changed last year when Li qualified for the Australian Open and won a round before losing to the eventual champion Sofia Kenin, 6-1, 6-3. Then, she earned a main draw berth at the US Open and won two rounds, including an upset of 13th-seeded Alison Riske, 6-0, 6-3, before losing to No. 17 seed Angelique Kerber in the third round. After not making it out of qualifying at Roland Garros, Li returned home and won an ITF $80k hard court event in Tyler, Texas, defeating Danish teen star Clara Tauson in the quarterfinals, Belgium’s Greet Minnen in the semifinals and Marta Kostyuk of Ukraine in the final.

Li finished 2020 ranked No. 97, a tremendous improvement over her ranking three years earlier of No. 583 in November 2017. Asked if she’s surprised – she’s skyrocketed to inside The Top 100 in such a short period of time – Li said she wasn’t. “I always knew I had the ability. It was just a matter of time and when I was going to step it up. Now, I definitely think I belong in the top [100] group. I’m going to keep working.”

This year, Li has started well by winning eight of her first nine matches. She shared the co-title of the Grampians Trophy in Melbourne, a pre-Australian Open tune-up for players who were strictly quarantined upon arrival in Australia, with Anett Kontaveit of Estonia. En route, she beat fellow American Jennifer Brady in the semifinal, 7-6 (5), 6-7 (5), 10-6. Then, Li surprised everyone by winning her first two matches in the Australian Open, both in straight sets. She beat No. 31 seed Zhang Shuai of China and Alizé Cornet of France. However, she met her match in World No. 8 Aryna Sabalenka from Belarus, who defeated Li 6-3, 6-1. Monterrey represents Li’s first tournament since Melbourne.

Asked how Li handled the moment of co-winning her first WTA title, she said: “I took it one match at a time. I was happy to get out of the strict quarantine in Australia and to be able to be outside to play and compete. I was really happy with the way I was playing and the results from that. Obviously, I would have loved to have played the final – my first WTA final – so it would have been fun. I understood the circumstances. I think my body took the rest well. I’m happy with that. I’m OK with it.”


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Looking back, Li expressed satisfaction with how she fared during the Australian Swing: “I think that those couple of tournaments in Australia really helped me and kind of gave me a lot of confidence going into the rest of the year – the rest of my career,” Li said, breaking into a smile. “I think just for me to perform that well there, I have to give credit to my preseason. Every day was hard work and I think I’ve grown a lot physically and mentally, and it’s helped me both in Australia and here. I’m looking forward to the rest of the year.”

On Monday, the eighth-seeded Li began her Monterrey run with a 6-3, 7-5 victory over No. 82 Arantxa Rus of the Netherlands. Paired with Thursday’s win over Zidansek, she’s won 15 of her last 17 matches going back to last season. Despite the pandemic interruption, she finished 2020 with a very respectable 20-9 win-loss record splitting her time between the WTA tour and ITF circuit.

“There are a lot of tournaments I haven’t played, so this year should be fun for me,” Li said. “This is my first time here [in Monterrey]. I want to improve my ranking. I don’t have a specific number that I want to get to, but obviously the higher the better (laughs). We’ll see how it goes. I’m looking forward to it.”

Looking toward the future, while Li doesn’t always peruse a tournament’s drawsheet to see who she plays next, she does know what lies ahead in terms of her schedule. It’s safe to say that she plans to stay busy.

“I’m definitely doing Miami and Charleston and there’s another tournament (a W60 on clay in late April) in Charleston, too. I have my sights set on those three tournaments,” Li said. “The calendar is stacked with back-to-back tournaments every week, so you have to plan it out well. I’m not sure about the European swing yet, but I’m definitely doing the French Open and the grass courts. …

“I think it’s going to be a great year for me,” Li added in an optimistic tone of voice. “One of my goals is to be able to get better every day, to focus on the little things, to be disciplined.”

Indeed, it’s the little things that are all adding up in the win column for Li.

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