BEIJING. Li Na will hope to confirm her spot at the end-of-year championships and seal her biggest win on home soil when she takes on a star-studded field at the China Open starting this weekend.
Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic headline the men’s draw and Serena Williams leads a packed women’s field at the dual ATP and WTA event at Beijing’s Olympic Park.
But former French Open champion Li will be the centre of attention for home fans, and she will look to ride a surge in form which made her the first Asian player to reach the US Open semifinals this month.
The world No 5 will now target a strong finish to a season which has also brought a seventh career title, her second Australian Open final and a deep run at Wimbledon.
In Beijing Li, 31, has the opportunity to book her place at the season finale, next month’s WTA Championships in Istanbul featuring the top eight women’s players.
She may also get the chance to avenge her US Open semifinal defeat to the mighty Williams, a match in which she only managed to take three games.
Williams, Victoria Azarenka, Maria Sharapova and Agnieszka Radwanska –the world numbers one, two, three and four – have already qualified for the WTA Championships.
Li has twice reached the semifinals at the prestigious Beijing event without being able to go all the way. She has won twice in China, in Shenzhen this year and in Guangzhou in 2004.
Djokovic, one of six of the men’s top 10 in Beijing, is unbeaten in three visits to the tournament after he followed up wins in 2009 and 2010 with victory over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in last year’s final.
And with the inclusion of Spain’s Nadal, the tournament offers the mouth-watering prospect of a repeat of the US Open final between the world No 1 and two.
Nadal’s compatriot and world No 4 David Ferrer is also present, along with the Czech Republic’s Tomas Berdych and France’s Richard Gasquet, a shock second-round loser last year to China’s Zhang Ze.
Zhang, China’s men’s No 1 but with a world ranking of 190, is a wildcard this year. On the women’s side, his compatriot Zhang Shuai is also a wildcard, despite winning her first WTA title in Guangzhou this month.
The 24-year-old recruited her own coach in July, following Li’s example in leaving the tightly-controlled state sports system. Speculation is now rising about whether she can now emulate the success of Asia’s first Grand Slam winner.
“I’m looking forward to the China Open as I have fond memories there,” said Zhang, who has twice won a smaller WTA tournament in the capital.
“I hope I can have a breakthrough and achieve something extraordinary this time,” she told the ifeng.com news website.
The tournament begins at the weekend and will reach its climax on October 6.