Is Australia Li Na’s lucky charm? Ask the popular Chinese player that question, and she’s quick to nod in agreement, the smile that’s never far from her face stretching a little wider. “I like to say, it’s my luck to win (here) so I always come back every year,” she says.
Li was referring specifically to Sydney, where she defeated Kim Clijsters in the final to claim her fourth career title in 2011, and where she was runner-up to Victoria Azarenka in 2012. But as she continued that tradition of shining in the harbour city by progressing to the semi-finals for a third consecutive year in 2013, Li might just as easily have been talking about Melbourne.
The world No. 6 has typically played some of her best tennis at Melbourne Park, scene of her first major final at Australian Open 2011, which was followed by her history-making run to become China’s first Grand Slam champion at Roland Garros just months later. She defeated Caroline Wozniacki and Venus Williams en route to the 2010 semifinals, and while she was unable to duplicate her Australian Open 2011 finals run in 2012, she held match points in a fourth-round loss to Clijsters that many considered the match of the women’s tournament.
As she sets about her eighth Australian Open campaign, Li’s crafty combination of touch, athleticism and competitive spirit could be even more fine-tuned than usual. In the second half of the 2012 season, the 30-year-old appointed Carlos Rodriguez, long-time advisor of Australian Open 2004 champion Justine Henin, as her coach. It was a move that paid quick dividends, Li progressing to the final of Montreal before claiming her first title in more than a year at Cincinnati. She’s already added to that tally in 2013, with victory in the inaugural WTA tournament in Shenzhen.
Li, who spent time in the off-season training in both Germany and Beijing, admits the intensity of Rodriguez’ regimen initially came as a shock.
“He gave me a lot of tough time(s) when I was training with him,” she commented in Sydney this week.
“(The) first three days, my husband didn’t come with me. After three days I was calling him, I say, ‘please come with me’. I was thinking already (to) retire after three days, because he's really, really tough.”
That candid assessment is delivered with a touch of Li’s familiar humour, emphasising that quitting is a scenario she’s unlikely to have considered seriously then – or will likely do at any point in the near future. Having relied on the support various coaches in recent years, including her husband Jiang Shan, the appointment of Rodriguez potentially symbolised another turning point in Li’s long career.
“You know, before we (were) we training he was tell(ing) me ... to be even better, you have to change something. I was agree(ing) because if I didn't change maybe I still can stay like top 10, 20, but I couldn't go up. So I was happy I can change in the mind,” Li said.
“(In the) beginning it was tough ... it's very tough to change. But I was happy I could trust him to change something in practice.”
Despite claiming seven career titles and more than $US 9 million prize money already, Li still has some big priorities on her ‘to do’ list.
“For our team, the goal is maybe we can do much, much better this year than last year,” she said.
“I really want to be like top three or win another Grand Slam.”
With her obvious character enhanced by her feisty competitive spirit, there are many supporters who’d love to see Li succeed in those objectives. Despite a semi-final loss to Agnieszka Radwanska in Sydney, Li was feeling positive as she considered the possibility of delivering in Melbourne.
“I'm still in the semis,” she said with a smile. “Why I should (be) so sad?
Indeed, after nine matches in 10 days, there is a brief period for recovery and further fine-tuning form with Rodriguez – and a confidence that things are working out as planned. Australia might be Li’s lucky charm, but it’s her hard work that’s helping her to capitalise on it.