EDITOR'S NOTE: On Sunday, Ann Li defeated María Camila Osorio Serrano, 6-1, 6-4, to win her first career WTA title in Tenerife, Spain. For the 21-year-old American, it's the first of what she hopes are more victorious Sundays—at more prestigious tournaments.

The below feature on Li, written last summer, highlights the Pennsylavnia native's sky-high goals and internal drive. Coupled with title-winning talent, the sky seems to be the limit for Li. Thankfully, she's dreaming pretty big.


Last year, instead of her regular training regimen at the USTA National Campus in Florida, Ann Li was quarantining with her parents in her childhood home outside Philadelphia. On a bathroom mirror hung five Post-it notes.

Li had just finished reading David Goggin’s Can’t Hurt Me, a manifesto by the former Navy SEAL to inspire people to achieve fulfillment by overcoming obstacles and reaching personal goals. Each chapter includes exercises designed to further one’s quest; objectives are to be put in writing.

Sprawled across Li’s sticky notes are her missions: to win each of the four Grand Slam tournaments, and become the No. 1 player in the world.

“I’m a super aggressive, all-court player, and I have a lot of goals,” says Li. “I always knew I had it in me. It was just a matter of time before it showed.”


Other words she’s jotted down: “meditate,” “visualize success,” and “stop caring about what other people think.” None of that is easy for a professional athlete, especially a just-turned 21-year-old who is on the cusp of some professional breakthroughs.

Over the last 10 months, Li has thrust herself into the tennis conversation with results that have brought her close to the Top 50 for the first time. It all began at last year’s US Open when she routed 13th-seeded Alison Riske in the second round, 6–0, 6–3, before a loss to former No. 1 Angelique Kerber marked her best finish at a major.

After ending last season by winning the $80,000 ITF World Tour/USTA Pro Circuit event in Tyler, Texas, Li kicked off 2021 by reaching the final of the Grampians Trophy, a tournament held for players who endured a hard quarantine in Melbourne just before the Australian Open. She shared the title with Anett Kontaveit when the final match was cancelled. Her run included a semifinal win over Jennifer Brady, a 2020 US Open semifinalist who would go on to reach the Australian Open final two weeks later.

But while Brady’s deep run Down Under garnered big headlines, Li’s third-round push was notable in its own right. She beat Zhang Shuai and Alize Cornet, two higher-ranked players, to reach another major third round before losing to red-hot Aryna Sabalenka. At her next event, in Monterrey, Li reached the semifinals. Ranked 148th in the world at the end of 2019, Li surged to a career-high No. 67 in mid-March.

Unlike fellow Americans Coco Gauff and Amanda Anisimova—both of whom won WTA titles as teens—Li’s climb has been slow and steady, and without the accompanying fanfare and sizzle.

“I’ve had steady growth in the past, which I like,” says Li, who turned down a scholarship to play for LSU in 2018 after she reached the final of a $60,000 ITF tournament. “Sometimes players get results too quickly and then they go down. Once I get up there, I really want to stay there and be at the top. So, I kind of like the journey I’ve been on, and where I’m going now.”


WATCH: Ann Li won the first 11 games of her first-round match at Roland Garros, and will face fifth-seeded Elina Svitolina next.

At 5’7”, Li can’t rely on shell-shocking opponents with brute force. But her serve is potent, and she often follows it up with crushing forehands. She’s not afraid of the net, as she showed in 2017, when she finished runner-up in Wimbledon juniors.

During last year’s lengthy, COVID-induced off-season, she focused diligently on her conditioning and strength-training. Working with fitness coach Brent Salazar, Li found herself running and using the AssaultBike with such ferocity that she was often in tears mid-workout.

“I think the conditioning helped me mentally and pushed me to another level,” says Li, who admits that most of her prior workouts were tailored more to her hitting than to her fitness. “Because every day was a challenge. Every day was so uncomfortable, just being so tired.

“I’ve never felt that way before, never been pushed to that extreme. It helped me break out of the mental place I was in and made me more confident in my game and myself.”

“One thing about Ann is that she’s playing a little bit of catch-up,” says Henner Nehles, a former USTA coach with whom Li began working with last fall. “Because she went to traditional school longer, she hasn’t had the volume of practice that others have had. Some of these younger players, like Anisimova and [Caty] McNally, have been on a court four, five hours a day since they were very young. The mind/body maturity also needs to come together. She’s still young. She needs more experience.

“But one thing about Ann is that she’s a great listener. That’s her gift. She always wants to get better. She’s professional. She shows up every day willing to do the work. She has a real sense of intensity and accountability.”


An abdominal injury has limited Li to just four tournaments in 2021, but she's made an impact in all of them.

An abdominal injury has limited Li to just four tournaments in 2021, but she's made an impact in all of them.

Li has taken pains to study and model her game style and demeanor after some of the all-time greats. She met her idol, Roger Federer, at the Wimbledon Champions Ball in 2017, but she also tries to incorporate the best qualities of Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Justine Henin, Kim Clijsters and Li Na into her game.

“Roger, obviously everything he does is great, but you can’t replicate that because he’s his own thing,” Li says. “Just the way he builds and constructs the points. Sometimes he makes it look so easy that it’s almost a trick to the eye because you think he’s not really working, but he’s actually working extremely hard.

“Djokovic is easier to copy because he’s more standard in the way he does things. I’m trying to take from him the return of serve, how consistent he is and the way he reads balls, even if he’s not in position.

“And, obviously, with Rafa it’s his fighting spirit. So they all have something good to take from, and hopefully I can become this one person that has everything.”

Li is not the best tennis player to hail from King of Prussia, Pa. That honor belongs to sisters Barbara and Kathy Jordan. Barbara was the 1979 Australian Open champion; Kathy was ranked No. 5 in 1984, a year after she lost to Martina Navratilova in the Australian Open final. Li had never heard of the Jordans, though her mother once introduced a very young Ann to Bob Jordan, the sisters’ father.

Li’s parents, Feng and Jianchao, emigrated from China but were not, contrary to previous reports, college athletes. Her father played recreational soccer and her mother ran track for leisure. An older brother, Fred, played on the high school tennis team and, in a story not unheard of in the professional ranks, Ann tagged along to lessons until the pro identified her as the family’s true tennis talent.

“I was always a super energetic kid, trying to do something,” Li says.

Ultimately, Li ended up playing at the Arthur Ashe Youth Tennis Center in Philadelphia, now called Legacy Youth Tennis & Education. Before long, she was a top American junior, winning the National 18 Clay Courts in 2016 alongside boys’ winner Sebastian Korda. A year later, she reached the junior final at Wimbledon, losing to Claire Liu in the first all-American girls’ final since Mary Lou Piatek beat Alycia Moulton in 1979.


Ann Li (left) and Claire Liu (right) after their 2017 Wimbledon junior final.

Ann Li (left) and Claire Liu (right) after their 2017 Wimbledon junior final.

Though they were both top juniors and fellow Asian-Americans, Li and Liu didn’t know each other when they met at the All England Club. That was largely because Li trained at USTA facilities in New York and Florida, while Liu stayed closer to her home in Carson, Calif. But they bonded the afternoon of the final in a unique manner.

The winners of the boys’ and girls’ championships are invited to take a bow in front of the Centre Court crowd after the men’s doubles final. While waiting their turns, Li and Liu were kept in the same anteroom just off the court that the world’s top players are seen entering from and disappearing into every year. But that Wimbledon, Lukasz Kubot, Marcelo Melo, Oliver Marach and Mate Pavic played a four-and-a-half-hour match.

The doubles duration allowed Li and Liu a lot of time to bond, and they became best friends.

“It was after that day that we really gravitated toward each other,” says Liu, who was born a month before Li. “Our games are similar in that we both have a really aggressive style and we’re both looking to come forward. But Ann has really easy power. She doesn’t look like she’s trying, but she’s super fast and she’s always in position to hit a really good rally ball, and that’s important.

“She’s so laid back, but she has her head on really straight and knows exactly what she wants.”


They all have something good to take from, and hopefully I can become this one person that has everything.—Ann Li, on what she can learn from Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.

Li describes herself as “really calm and really relaxed, just a chill person overall,” though she says she’s not as quiet as people think. Those qualities, she says, helped her not only in 2020, but this January, when she was forced into hard quarantine when passengers on her flight to Melbourne in January tested positive for COVID, and she was unable to train for two weeks.

“I was shocked in a way,” says Li, who neglected to bring along the trusty ukulele she has played on and off over the years. “But after that day I was like, ‘OK, there’s really nothing you can do about it.’ I think my personality helps with that. Mentally I was fine being in a room. I really don’t care.”

The Post-it notes still adorn Li’s bathroom mirror more than a year later. She reads them every time she returns home, a vivid reminder of how much she still has to work for.

And she won’t take them down until all five goals have been realized.