Music to her ears: Ann Li "belongs more" this time around in Melbourne

Music to her ears: Ann Li "belongs more" this time around in Melbourne

Whether it’s her personality or perspective, the 20-year-old American rolled with the punches of her hard quarantine, and reached her first WTA semifinal on Saturday at the Grampians Trophy.

Editor's Note: Li defeated Sorana Cirstea, 6-3, 6-1, in the quarterfinals of the Grampians Trophy, before adding a  7-6 (5), 6-7 (5) [10-6] victory over Jennifer Brady on Sunday. Li, along with Anett Kontaveit, will receive finalist points and prize money after the WTA decided not to stage the title match with the Australian Open commencing Monday.

When 72 players learned they would be forced to stay inside for two weeks after touching down in Melbourne, the tennis community witnessed all kinds of reactions through mid-January. One group let their creative sides out—to the delight of social media. Another set expressed their displeasure with the hand dealt. One player shared, on two occasions, a unexpected roommate creeping across the floor.

A cluster of competitors stayed under the radar—like Ann Li. Whether it’s due to her personality or perspective, the 20-year-old kept to herself, rolling with the punches to meet a new set of physical and mental challenges presented by the hard quarantine.

“I'm more chill. I didn't get riled up about the situation, because there's nothing we can do,” Li tells “Tennis Australia and everyone, they were so generous [with] gym equipment and food. So I can't complain, honestly.”

Li set a daily schedule. She worked out twice a day, at 9 a.m. and again between 2 and 3 p.m. Using her mattress as a backboard was common practice, as was shadow swinging. There were plenty of tunes to keep the vibe going, too. Li relies on music as an outlet to escape, though, as she points out, there’s work to be done with reconnecting to her own musicality.  

“I should probably change that, because I haven't really played [the ukulele] in a while. I also have a guitar, but I'm still learning that. But I don't have anything with me here,” Li shares. “I'm not working on any music. I would love to, actually. I always had a thing with music. I really love it.

“I definitely listened to music way too much, especially in the 14 days in the room, just blasting music all day long. I'm glad the walls were thick, so nobody heard me all the time.”

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When finally released to train outside, Li left appreciating her level of professionalism.

“I'm actually pretty proud of the work I put in in that room,” she professes.

When she hit the practice court, Li was confident her hotel grind would translate to her on-court timing. She still moderated expectations on her level and, like others in her situation, has dealt with soreness along the way. But all has turned out positively thus far for the rising American.

To create equity for the players who underwent a hard quarantine, the WTA added a special 500-level event for that group this week in Melbourne. Having seen her opening Grampians Trophy opponent, Ellen Perez, retire down 3-5, Li next faced Veronika Kudermetova on Friday. The Russian started the year with a bang, defeating Anett Kontaveit and Elina Svitolina en route to a runner-up finish in Abu Dhabi.

Kudermetova led early, and held three set points on her serve at 5-4, 40-0. Li didn’t yield, saving them all to snatch the first set. Mid-way through the second, heavy rain suspended play. When the two returned, Li surged, winning four of five games to advance, 7-5, 6-3, and reach her first WTA quarterfinal—where she'll face Sorana Cirstea Saturday. 

“I didn't know that much about her, but I knew she was a big hitter,” she says. “I was really just trying to stay super physical with my legs when she hits that big ball. I was down in the first set, down set points, and I just tried to stay strong and make her hit an extra ball. And luckily it worked. So that kind of helped me.”

It's an example of that evolved mindset that pushed Li inside the Top 100 at the end of last season. When Li arrived at Melbourne Park in January 2020, her ranking stood at No. 142. She qualified for her first major main draw, saving a pair of match points to topple No. 1 seed Ana Bogdan in the final round. Another milestone win over Lizette Cabrera followed, before eventual champion Sofia Kenin ended her run.

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After the WTA shutdown, Li went a step further at the US Open, dropping just three games to oust No. 13 seed Alison Riske in the second round. An $80k ITF title in Tyler, Texas capped a peculiar—yet prosperous—year on tour for the King of Prussia, Pa. native, though her work never really stopped. Putting in a long and demanding fitness-driven pre-season, Li came to Australia with bigger expectations and greater self-assurance.

“Compared to last year, I feel like I belong here more. I think overall, my body physically is a lot stronger,” the world No. 99 says. “Tennis-wise, I’m trying to cut back on the errors and molding into a solid, ‘This is how I play every time’ game plan.

“I love playing here. I love the vibes, the site, the people and the food.”

Speaking of food—Li's caffeine fix isn’t a mainstream choice in Melbourne, but if grabbing hot chocolate is anything like her fruitful hard quarantine routine, there’s no need to break it.