It’s tough to remember a time when we didn’t know about Li Na. Her wise cracks punctuated by serious pauses, her personal revelations (her husband’s snoring, anyone?), and not least, her punishing brand of aggressive tennis. It may have all the twists and turns of the Great Ocean Road, but it’s a fascinating watch.
But, since Carlos Rodriguez joined her team, there has been less up and down from Li, exhibited perfectly in her 7-5 6-3 win over Agnieszka Radwanska to reach the semifinals at Melbourne Park.
“She’s a tough player,” Li said. “I was feeling today against a wall. She can hit everywhere, but without a mistake. You have to focus on every shot. Not every point, every shot.”
It is the third time in four years that Li will feature in the last four on Rod Laver Arena, and Radwanksa was the first to admit that Li deserved the win, a tussle that was far closer than the scoreline suggests.
“She was really playing good tennis,” Radwanska said. “Some of the games she didn’t let me do anything, deep balls all the time.”
With two players as proficient as these two from the baseline, it was perhaps unsurprising that it was a game of returns and breaks, the pair swopping serves 10 times throughout the match.
“The sun was over there ... it’s very tough to see,” Li explained. “It’s tough after serve the first shot, because after you saw the sun coming, the eyes was total black.”
But what proved to be the key for Li was that every time she was broken, she broke back, converting six of seven break points, while Radwanska managed to convert just four of 10.
It did not always look like it would go that way. At 4-4 in the first set, with 50 minutes played, Li had already hit 27 unforced errors to Radwanska’s nine, and found herself broken to love. No matter, she broke straight back, again to love. Halting the run of breaks as she held for 6-5, stringing together three straight points on her own serve for the first time in a while, the former French Open champion broke again to take the set 7-5 after 66 minutes.
It was the first set Radwanska, Ms Reliable, had dropped all year.
Traditionally, at this juncture, Li would go on a walkabout. And there were moments when it looked like she might, dropping eight points in a row to start it, and even producing a Sam Stosur-style shanked serve that flew into the crowd. “Carlos, we practise that one,” she joked.
But that was about as far as she fluctuated. Having stemmed her errors and upped her winners, Li broke twice more to lead 5-2 in the second set, and held steady to serve it out, 7-5 6-3 in an hour and 42 minutes.
“I had my chances, but if you’re not taking them, it goes away,” Radwanksa said. “She was very solid from the beginning of the match.”
But for Li to make it to what would be her third Grand Slam singles final, she will have to raise her game again – 40 unforced errors is too many, even alongside 32 winners. And, her likely opponent is Maria Sharapova, who has been scalding in her form so far, dropping just five games en route to the last eight.
“She’s more aggressive player on the court,” Li said. “Also she’s tough. She’s fight a lot. Should be tough match. [But] at least now I’m in the semis. She has to play, so …”