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Tennis | WTA

Li Na © Gallo Images

Li Na ready for clay season



Li Na still can't get over being on the cover of the latest Time Magazine as one of the world's 100 most influential people.

The question naturally arose on Monday at the Porsche Grand Prix, where the popular Chinese is the second seed behind Russian title holder Maria Sharapova.

Li smiled, clenched her fists, and said "I was so excited. At first I thought 'who's that? I know that girl.' It is pretty cool."

The 2011 French Open champion is one of four athletes in the elite list of American magazine, the others being Italian footballer Mario Balotelli, skier Lindsey Vonn and fellow-American basketballer LeBron James.

She follows in the footsteps of other tennis players who have been on the Time list, such as Serena Williams and Roger Federer, with former great Chris Evert saying in her salute that Li has "transcended her sport" and is "such a breath of fresh air."

Most notably, though, according to Evert, is Li role back home in China.

"Tennis has exploded in China. The country now has some 15 million tennis players; 116 million people watched Li win the French Open. That kind of exposure is crucial to our sport, and it never would have happened without Li. At tournaments, I've seen her charm the crowds. When she smiles, everyone melts," Evert said.

Li, the first Asian player to win a grand slam title with her 2011 triumph in Paris, said: "I wish I can help tennis in China. There has been a lot of growth in the last six-seven years. Children now know tennis, they know our life.

"It was very tough when I started. My goal was to be national champion because I couldn't get any information on what was happening (in tennis) around the world."

Li expects great players to emerge from her country soon and surpass her in what she names the twilight of her career at age 31.

"They can do much better than me. I have seen so many good players," Li said. "I am not young anymore. I want to enjoy tennis."

Li's immense popularity makes it difficult for her to train in Beijing. Things have become a little better now that she has a private training facility, but she still escapes to Germany where she likes "the beer" best and regularly trains in Munich.

Now comes Stuttgart where she starts her 2013 clay season which is to culminate at the French Open starting in late May.

Li won the Shenzhen title in January and made the Australian Open final where she lost against Victoria Azarenka after rolling her ankle twice. The ailment kept her out of action until the Miami Masters in March where she went out in the quarterfinals against top ranked Serena Williams.

Stuttgart is a good test because seven of the top 10 are set to play there on indoor clay. The top four - Sharapova, Li, German Angelique Kerber and Sara Errani of Italy - have a first-round bye.

Li has not gone beyond the quarterfinals in her previous showings, but says she has trained well and hard again with coach Carlos Rodriguez.

"The practice is still tough," she said with a smile, explaining that even her husband as hitting partner is told by Rodriguez to chase her around the court, but maintains the view that her marriage is "much better" now that her husband is no longer her coach.

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