How American Ann Li has slipped under the radar while rising through the ranks

During the five-month suspension of the professional tennis season in 2020, Ann Li found solace in an old Rafael Nadal quote as she did her best to stay motivated and continue training despite the constant uncertainty.

“Enduring means accepting,” Nadal wrote in his 2011 biography. “Accepting things as they are and not as you would wish them to be, and then looking ahead, not behind.”

It’s a mantra that has continued to serve her well.

Being one of the 72 players forced to partake in a hard quarantine last month following a positive test of a fellow passenger upon her charter flight arrival in Melbourne last month, Li knew there was little she could do. While some of her peers publicly complained about their plight and misfortune, Li chose to stay focused and simply endure.

She worked out as much as she could from her hotel room, moving her mattress against the wall to hit into and utilizing the provided equipment. She felt confident in her intense preseason training, but she still didn’t have many expectations for herself in the Grampians Trophy event, just days after being allowed to leave her room.

As all the players participating had been in the same scenario, the field was leveled and she was excited just to have the chance to be on the court again.

Throughout the course of the five-day event, which experienced a one-day suspension in the middle due to COVID-19 concerns, Li made the most of the strange opportunity. She won four-straight matches, including a hard-fought three set match against US Open semifinalist Jennifer Brady, and won the tournament.

Well … sort of.

Due the delay in play, the final wasn’t actually played so the two finalists, Li and Anett Kontaveit, were named co-champions and both received the points and prize money allotted for the winner.

*Some friendly competition never hurt anyone ��#GrampiansWTA

– wta (@WTA) February 7, 2021

While technically not a WTA title, it marked the biggest breakthrough moment of Li’s young career and allowed her to enter the Australian Open on a winning streak. The momentum has very much continued — Li won her first two matches in straight sets and will next face Aryna Sabalenka, the tournament’s No. 7 seed, in the third round on Friday.

“I think in a way [quarantine] just made me enjoy being on court more,” she said on Wednesday following a win over Alize Cornet.

“I think sometimes we take it for granted and just we need to go out there and have a purpose every ball because maybe we don’t know when we’re going to not play.

“And I think going to this week, I’m not really thinking about that I was in hard quarantine. I’m just trying to compete and play my best.”

Li reached the Wimbledon junior finals in 2017, and found her stride at the professional level in 2020 despite the abnormality throughout much of the year. She qualified for her first major main draw during the 2020 Australian Open, ultimately losing to eventual champion Sofia Kenin in the second round, and when the season resumed in August, she made a third-round run at the US Open, knocking off the No. 13 seed Alison Riske on the way. She ended the season with an ITF title — her third — in Tyler, Texas.

Entering the 2020 season ranked No. 145, she was No. 98 by year’s end and now is at a career-high No. 69. A victory over Sabalenka would likely propel her about 10 more spots. Her third-round appearance guarantees her trip to Australia will more than quadruple her career earnings.

She knows playing the powerful Sabalenka will not be easy. The 22-year-old won the final two WTA tournaments of the 2020 season in Ostrava and Linz and opened 2021 with a title in Abu Dhabi. She had her 15-match win streak halted in the Gippsland Trophy lead-in event, but that hasn’t seemed to deter her in her first two matches at the Australian Open.

“She’s definitely been doing really well so I’m looking forward to that,” Sabalenka said. “I know she’s one of the biggest hitters on tour and I feel like I’ve played against a lot of big hitters in the matches I’ve had coming in, but she’s at the top. It’s going to be fun seeing how I can play my game against her.”

The winner of their match will face Serena Williams or Anastasia Potapova in the fourth round in a potential dream opportunity for any young player. With five American women left in the draw entering the Round of 32, and a number of big names dominating the headlines, Li has largely flown under the radar — just as she has among many of her fellow up-and-coming peers since turning pro. But a win over Sabalenka would certainly change that.

The King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, native didn’t seem fazed about what was to come or the pressure of such a match on Wednesday. Having played six matches in eight days, she was ready for a day off and didn’t plan on doing much by way of preparation.

“Tomorrow I might hit for 15 minutes just to feel it a little bit,” she said. “And I’m also going to get some treatment and maybe watch a little [tennis] too. I like coming here [to Melbourne Park] a lot, but I’ll try not to stay too long.”

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