Published January 22, 2013
MELBOURNE, Australia – French Open champion Li Na credits new coach Carlos Rodriguez with turning her tennis career around — and saving her marriage.
Last August, the 30-year-old Chinese star hired Rodriguez, who coached Justine Henin to seven Grand Slam titles, after the conflicts with her previous coach — husband Jiang Shan — became too much to bear.
"The funny thing is, I think two years ago in China, someone said I was divorced," Li said Tuesday after beating Poland's Agnieszka Radwanska 7-5, 6-3 to advance to the semifinals of the Australian Open against Maria Sharapova. "Because they were thinking, we're always shouting, maybe we're divorced."
"It's just being coach and husband is — how you say — tough to find a balance!" she added.
Now Li and Jiang have found marital peace again — fewer disagreements on or off the court — and she is winning again.
Li hired Rodriguez after disappointing early-round losses at Wimbledon and the London Olympics. He joined her midweek at a tournament in Cincinnati — they had never even met before — and she captured the title, her first since her breakthrough Grand Slam win at Roland Garros in 2011.
She then won a second title at the inaugural Shenzhen Open earlier this month and is now in the semifinals of the Australian Open for the third time in four years.
Rodriguez has had a steadying influence on Li, who had previously struggled to control her emotions on court and has appeared more composed since starting to work with him.
At one point during the second set against Radwanska, Li lost her service toss in the sun and batted the ball five rows deep into the crowd. Rather than let the mishit unnerve her, however, she calmly made her second serve and put away a deft backhand volley to win the point.
When asked later what happened with that very wayward serve, she quipped: "I want to have good communication with the fans."
Then she said to her coach, "Carlos, make sure we practice on serve."
Two years ago, on her way to becoming the first Chinese player to reach a Grand Slam final at the Australian Open, Li was pure entertainment in her news conferences, joking about her husband's snoring and admitting she forget her own wedding anniversary.
After her win at the French Open, however, things changed. She began to put more pressure on herself at the Grand Slams — and didn't make a quarterfinal at six consecutive major tournaments. At last year's Australian Open, she left in tears after wasting four match points in the fourth round against Kim Clijsters.
Now the humor is back. Li related the difficulties she had when she started training with Rodriguez at the Spaniard's tennis academy in Beijing. After three days of six-hour workouts, she called her husband in distress.
"Carlos is crazy," she told him.
Jiang didn't believe her, so he came to Beijing to see for himself.
"I was doing some exercises with Carlos. (Jiang) was sitting in the gym," Li said. "After I was halfway done, he was like, 'Are you finished?' I said, 'No, only halfway.'
"He said, 'I'm tired!' I said, 'Don't say that. I'm doing exercises; you're only sitting. Don't say you're tired.'"
Li acknowledges now the hard work was worth it. Her fitness was tested against the fourth-seeded Radwanska, a crafty player who relies on spins and slices to construct points and wears her opponents down with her consistency.
Radwanska tried to dictate play by moving Li around the court, but the sixth-seeded Chinese star countered with deep, heavy groundstrokes and superb volleying, winning 20 of 24 points at net.
Li will next play the No. 2-ranked Sharapova, who can see a difference in Li's game since she's been working with Rodriguez.
"She's a Grand Slam champion. It wasn't like she needed someone to come in and fix her game," she said. "But sometimes when you just have a different surrounding and a new voice, they might be saying the same things but it just gets to you a little bit differently and your motivation changes."
Li knows she will have to be sharp against Sharapova — the Russian won the three matches they played last year. But she believes she's a stronger player now.
"I'm getting a little bit older, getting more experience," Li said. "Right now, I really enjoy every match."
WILLIAMS SISTERS OUT: Perhaps it was a bad omen for the Williams sisters when one of Venus' shots from the baseline pegged Serena in the back during their doubles match.
Serena shook it off, but the match went downhill from there.
After winning the first set in their Australian Open quarterfinal against top-ranked Italian duo Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci, the Williams sisters lost 3-6, 7-6 (1), 7-5 — halting the Americans' bid for their 14th Grand Slam doubles title.
Older sister Venus was to blame for a string of errors at crucial moments, including two double-faults before losing her service game to give the Italians a 6-5 edge in the third set.
Errani served out the 2-hour, 36-minute match without dropping a point, thanks in part to Venus sending the final shot into the net.
"It shows they're human," Errani said.
ATTITUDE CHECK: Bernard Tomic was told to change his attitude if he wants to play for Australia's Davis Cup team, captain Pat Rafter said.
Rafter and Tomic had a falling out in November, and the 20-year-old was axed from his team's first-round matches in February.
Rafter said he spoke to Tomic after his third-round loss to Roger Federer over the weekend, their first conversation since November.
"He needs to respect me and I need to respect him in that manner," said Rafter, a two-time U.S. Open champion. "If we have a breakdown, then obviously that's not a good thing."
If Australia advances, Tomic's potential return would be based both on his tennis and his temperament.
"The stipulation was that, 'You're playing well and you show the attitude that you did here at the Australian Open, then you'll be up for selection like all the other guys,'" Rafter said he told Tomic.
Seen as one of Australia's rising talents, Tomic reached the Wimbledon quarterfinals as a qualifier in 2011 and advanced to the fourth round at last year's Australian Open. But after hitting a career-high No. 27 in June, Tomic's ATP ranking slid to a year-end No. 52.
There were questions about his performance at the U.S. Open in September when he was accused of tanking in a match against American Andy Roddick. He also had a few run-ins with the law at home.