It’s not often that by quitting a sport, you can actually become better at it.
But for Li Tu, a former Davis Cup junior, that’s exactly what happened when the Australian walked away from professional tennis at the age of just 16.
“In my head I quit and just wasn’t really enjoying it anymore. There was a lot of expectation, a lot of pressure. It’s not easy being a tennis player and dealing with a lot of losses,” You told The SportingNews.
“I probably just didn’t have the right perspective at the time and really struggled to deal with that. It made me stop playing.
“Tennis was my entire life, I started when I was five and by the time I was 10 it was everything to me. For some people it works, but for me I found it didn’t.”
By putting the racquet down professionally, for what turned out to be six years, you had time to rediscover his love for the sport.
In teaching juniors how to deal with their own setbacks on the court, the Aussie realized where he was going wrong himself.
“I went to uni, finished a bachelor of commerce/marketing and I was also doing tennis coaching with some hospitality work as well,” Tu said.
“It was mainly coaching that I had a passion for and it really helped me get perspective on tennis, the wins and the losses.
“Talking it through with a lot of juniors, who struggled with the things I did, it just sunk in for me.
“A few things sort of aligned and I was ready to get back into tennis for the love of the game and not so much for the destination.
“I try to play tennis as a part of my identity and not my whole identity.”
Returning to the court in August 2020, you hit the ground running and have won six ITF singles titles since his comeback.
Your most recent triumph came in Egypt of all places in late April this year, with the 25-year-old winning his first ever clay title in Cairo.
“We wanted to play on clay and there was an opportunity to play in Cairo so we thought we’d break up the trip a little bit and go see the pyramids,” he said.
“It wasn’t too hot but the courts were pretty average, a fair few bad bounces, the courts were very dry. It was pretty tough conditions to be honest.
“The conditions on and off the court were average, bit of a grind, but I was quite happy to have gotten a good result.”
Your ATP ranking has risen well over 500 places since his return to tennis and he’s on the cusp of making some significant progress as he eyes a productive 2022.
“I am planning to play a full schedule this year. I’ve never done that before and just see where it ends up,” he said.
“I’m just really focused on developing and playing as many matches as I can. I find that’s when I improve the most.
“I just want to keep playing and try to get the ranking as high as possible. My ranking currently sits at about 340 on the live rankings and the next milestone would be to make it into a Grand Slam qualifying which is about 230 so that would be the next milestone for me.”
The 25-year-old has already played in a Grand Slam with fortune smiling on You in the form of an Australian Open wild card in 2021.
“It was amazing and it all happened so quickly. There wasn’t much time to celebrate, it was pure business,” he said.
“About a week later I had to pinch myself and ask if that really happened. I had to detach myself from it when I first found out to stay focused.
“I’m glad I put up a good fight and that you have given me the confidence in my game to handle the losses, any downfalls and know I can compete with a top 100 player.”
So how does a player get a wild card in their home Grand Slam?
“It was unbelievable how it happened,” he said.
“Because of COVID they had the qualifiers in Doha a week earlier and I just missed out on those.
“So then during January there was a UTR and I beat (Marc) Polmans who was 120 at the time and while that happened Andy Murray pulled out of AO with COVID so a spot opened up.
“They could either give it to a ‘lucky loser’ (from qualifiers) or an Aussie that didn’t play qualifiers and as it turned out they gave it to me.”
While Tu would lose his first round match against Feliciano López, handling defeats like that only served to highlight how important his break away from the game was.
“I’ve had a couple moments since being back where I get a little caught up in the result but I’ve had some good people around me to bring me back down and remind me why I started playing again,” he said.
“Tennis is as much about as hitting a ball as it is mental. That’s something I’ve definitely gotten better at.
“My talent and skill was always there but I’ve come back better mentally and with greater balance in life which has improved my game on the court.”
Though your time away from tennis was vital, comebacks like his don’t happen overnight.
Blood, sweat and tears over the past 18 months have left the Aussie in a promising position and one he wouldn’t even have dared dreamed of a few years ago.
“I did a three-month training block to get myself into shape. Probably the hardest I’ve ever worked in my life. My schedule was hectic,” Tu said.
“But putting in that work really accelerated me getting back to where I wanted to be.
“Could never have imagined to be in the position I am now talking about trying to play Grand Slam qualifiers – it’s crazy.”