China's Li dares to dream again in Melbourne

By Ian Ransom

MELBOURNE (Reuters) - China's Li Na continued her love affair with Melbourne Park, powering past eighth seed Victoria Azarenka 6-3 6-3 to book a spot in the quarter-finals of the Australian Open on Sunday.

Li stormed to her first grand slam semi-final at the tournament last year and was joined in the last four by compatriot Zheng Jie, the pair smashing a number of records for Chinese tennis.

While Serena Williams and Justine Henin ended up quashing the threat of an all-Chinese final, the late-bloomer Li is riding a wave of confidence this year and has edged closer to her dream of becoming her country's first singles grand slam champion.

"Last year, I needed two more steps. So hopefully this year I can do better."

Li was bundled out of the first round of the U.S. Open, however, and struggled for rest of the year. She suggested that communications problems with her team had affected her game.

"I don't know whether it was pressure from my team or whether I was just feeling very depressed," said 11th-ranked Li, who parted ways with coach Thomas Hogstedt at the end of last year and is now coached by her husband, Jiang Shan.

"I just couldn't get excited, especially in the last part of the year. But after adjusting, I feel a lot better now."

"I can communicate more directly with my team now. If we have any issues we just raise them."

GOING ALONE

While Zheng was ruled out of the Australian Open with injury, Li still has company at the draw in the form of 54th-ranked Peng Shuai, who will face Agnieszka Radwanska in the fourth round.

Li, Peng, Zheng and Yan Zi, a two-time grand slam doubles champion, were granted leave by China's tennis association to organize their own tours and pick their coaches in a ground-breaking move in a country where most athletes remain yoked to a Soviet-style sports system.

Li, who wears a tattoo of a rose and a love heart on her chest, has played her best tennis since breaking from the system and enjoys the freedom to decide her own training after clashing with Chinese officials for a number of years.

"If you stay in the national team you don't need to take care of anything... They do everything for you," she said.

"But right now I have my team around with me... If I'm lazy, I want to rest, I can say, 'Okay, now stop - I want to rest'.

"Before if I (were) on the national team, I have to follow the team because I couldn't do many thing as one because we are the team."

Her husband has also helped take the pressure off by worrying about the finances while letting Li go wild with a credit card.

He also has the duty of watching out for her next opponent, either Maria Sharapova or Andrea Petkovic.

"I think this is my husband's job. I just lie down on the bed and enjoy watching TV, that's all," she said.

(Editing by John O'Brien)