China's Li Na serves to Sara Errani of Italy during the WTA Championships on October 23 in Istanbul. Photo: CFP
Peng Shuai (left) and Hsieh Su-wei Photo: IC
When Chinese superstar Li Na vowed to break into the top three or win another major at the beginning of the year, many thought the outspoken tennis ace may have been dreaming too big this time.
However, Li silenced those who suggested that her best was behind her by achieving what she described as the "most consistent season in her career" and eventually finishing third in the year-end world rankings.
Li reached another milestone in Chinese tennis history, again.
From being the first Chinese WTA title winner, top 10 player and Grand Slam champion, she has become used to making history for her country and even for Asia.
"I'm very happy with what I achieved this year," Li said during the year-ending WTA Championships. "The whole team tried to do what we said, and we finally made it. It's a pretty good ending for 2013."
At the age of 31, Li has not only become the first Asian to reach world No.3, but her game is evolving enough to give her hope for further triumphs in 2014.
Although Li conceded the last nine games in a 2-6, 6-3, 6-0 loss to Serena Williams in the WTA Championships final in October, there was evidence of new tactical options and growing self-confidence as she overcame Victoria Azarenka, the world No.2, and then troubled the world No.1 in the opening set.
Reaching the flagship tournament for a third consecutive time was the icing on the cake, as Li's performance in 2013 can be said to be impeccable.
Li reached her third Grand Slam final in the Australian Open and then made it to the US Open semifinals and Wimbledon quarterfinals. With those stellar results she thought her standard in 2013 was even higher than when she won the French Open two years ago.
Li's fine performances in 2013 suggest that she is still improving at an age when many players are deemed to be on the decline.
On many occasions, Li has talked about her age with a touch of irony. "The oldest players have more experience on court," she said.
And when asked about whether she will now aim for the world No.2 spot during the WTA Championships, she responded "Why not?"Doubles triumph
Besides Li's continuous late-career surge, Peng Shuai, one of Chinese mainland's top female tennis players commonly referred to as "Golden Flowers," gave fans extra reason to cheer in 2013.
Peng, a regular singles player, found that she should possibly spend more time playing doubles events after she teamed up with Chinese Taipei's Hsieh Su-wei to win the women's doubles at Wimbledon this season.
Peng and Hsieh, born four days apart in January 1986, have been friends since their junior days and won five of their nine doubles titles this year, including Wimbledon and the year-ending WTA Championships titles.
"We really enjoyed playing together this year," Peng told the official WTA website. "We had a really good time together on the court - we fought sometimes, but it was still a lot of great memories."
So what's next for the reigning Wimbledon winners?
"We haven't really discussed it yet," Hsieh said.
"Do we play together next year?" Peng asked.
"It depends on if we fight or not in the next two months!" Hsieh joked.Singles pressure
However, it's still the singles event that carries the most weight in the world of tennis.
Peng, who was ranked in the top 20 and is now 42nd in singles, hasn't won a singles title in her 13-year career. She has decided to take more singles events in the coming season.
The milestone has been set by Li, but Chinese fans are hoping more youngsters will come of age as quickly as possible.
Li, Peng and Zheng Jie are the players who have been flying the Chinese flag in world tennis, but this season witnessed the rise of Zhang Shuai, another player who bravely left the State system and chose to play for herself.
Outside the top 100 for almost two years, and without great results in the first half of the season, Zhang turned the tables on the tour after the US Open, winning 19 of 24 matches, a stretch that included her maiden WTA title in Guangzhou and her first WTA 125K Series title in Nanjing.
Zhang became the fifth Chinese player ever to win a WTA title after Li, Zheng, Yan Zi and Sun Tiantian. Now she's nearing the top 50.
"Live life like a dandelion, pursue our dreams freely," said Peng on her microblog. While the veterans remain at their best, the young guns are coming up, and are expected to make a big splash in the coming season.
Xinhua - Global Times