MELBOURNE, Australia – China's most successful tennis player is just "three more steps" from making tennis history, a prospect that makes her mother very nervous.
Li Na's mother supports her career, but can't bring herself to follow it.
"She can't watch me play tennis. I'll ask her many times, 'Please travel with me.' She says 'No. I want to stay because I don't want to watch,'" Li said. "She's so nervous."
It might be getting difficult to ignore Li at the Australian Open, now that Chinese television is broadcasting her matches live.
Pierced, tattooed and confident, the No. 9-seeded Li reached the quarterfinals Sunday by beating eighth-seeded Victoria Azarenka of Belarus 6-3, 6-3. Displaying new aggressiveness, Li rushed to the net eight times and won all eight points. She hit 66 winners, compared with 50 by Azarenka.
Quick to quip, Li explained what helped her win.
"Because I'm better, so I won," she said with a smile.
Most Chinese athletes maintain a clean-cut image, but the 28-year-old Li has a tattoo on her chest of a rose inside a heart and two upper ear piercings. She also took the rare step of breaking away from the state-run sports system in 2008 and hiring her own coach.
After the end of the 2010 season, she replaced former coach Thomas Hogstedt with her husband, Jiang Shan.
Li jokes that taking orders from her husband rankles her and often results in an argument, but she says the change has made her "more happy on the court."
"We have good energy, good communication. It's always a positive thing for the team," she said. "The most important thing is I trust him."
Li will play the quarterfinals against Andrea Petkovic of Germany, who beat Maria Sharapova of Russia 6-2, 6-3. Li didn't bother to watch their match.
"I think this is my husband's job," she said. "I just lie down in the bed. Enjoy, watch TV. That's all."
Li won the hearts of fans last year by first beating Venus Williams in the quarterfinals and then playing a nail-bitingly close semifinal against Serena Williams. Li saved three match points in the semifinal but ultimately lost 7-6 (4), 7-6 (1).
Her fourth-round match Sunday was played center court, where the crowd cheered for Li and occasionally mimicked her opponent's vocal sound effects — a high-pitched shriek with every hit.
Two Chinese players reached the semifinals of a Grand Slam for the first time last year, when Li and Zheng Jie advanced in Australia. Despite losing that round, Li became the first Chinese player to enter the top 10 and stayed there for 16 weeks. She finished the year ranked No. 11.
She has carried that form into the new year, beating Kim Clijsters to win the Sydney International, a tuneup event for the Australian Open. Zheng is not playing in Melbourne this year because of an injury, but another compatriot, Peng Shuai, advanced Saturday to the fourth round.
Clijsters is considered a strong favorite for the trophy in Melbourne because Serena Williams is not defending her title because of an injury.
Li and Clijsters would only meet in the final. If they do, Li hopes to mark another first for China, which has never had a player — male or female — win a Grand Slam.
"If I can win, this will be a huge day for China and tennis," Li said. "I feel I have a chance. Just three more steps."