Li Na looks certain to build on last month’s Australian Open triumph by reaching a career-high world number two next week – and could go on to become Serena Williams’ nearest rival.
The Chinese player is the unexpected top seed at the Qatar Open starting here on Monday, after a foot inflammation caused Victoria Azarenka’s withdrawal and a persistently troublesome back forced Williams to pull out too.
It means that Azarenka, the current world number two, will lose all the 900 ranking points she gained after beating Williams in last year’s remarkable final, and that Li needs a mere nine points to climb above the Belarussian.
A more debatable issue is whether Li can maintain the improvements which have brought her best sequence of success at an age when many players start to decline.
Despite being 32 this month Li continues to combine an ability to peak well with an enduring physical resilience and an impressive capacity for striking the ball flat and hard.
Even though Williams has almost twice as many ranking points as Li, the woman from Wuhan may create significant momentum if she captures another title in her first outing since her Melbourne miracle.
Much may depend on how Li has handled the Australian euphoria and the subsequent return to earth. She claims she is better prepared for dealing with a Grand Slam aftermath this time than after winning the French Open in 2011.
“I really wasn’t prepared for that,” Li admits. “Now it’s different because I really prepared to win this Grand Slam.
“This time I was thinking about if I win or if I lose, what kind of life I will have, so for sure it’s different than last time.”
For a while now Li has appeared better organised, more focussed, and more confident, and she has given much of the credit for this to her coach Carlos Rodriguez, with whom she began working in 2012.
“Carlos has a lot of experience because before me he was coaching Justine Henin (seven times a Grand Slam winner),” said Li.