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 — her 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 miss-hit unnerve her, however, she calmly made her second serve and put away a deft backhand volley to win the point.
"I was working a lot on this (aspect) in winter training," Li said. "Carlos always say, 'Calm down, calm down.'"
In interviews, she seems happier as well. 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 press 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 majors. At last year's Australian Open, she left in tears after wasting four match points in the fourth round against Kim Clijsters.
On Tuesday, Li said she was still thinking about those match points a year later during her third-round match against Romanian Sorana Cirstea.
"When I was playing Cirstea in Rod Laver, I was thinking about the match last year. It's something you couldn't forget. Always in your mind," she said.
This year, though, she says she is more relaxed — and she's back to her humorous self.
When asked during her post-match interview 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."
Later, 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.
"After three days, I was dying. Because my husband didn't come with me to Beijing, I called him and said, 'Carlos is crazy,'" she said.
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 admits 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 Chinese sixth seed countered with deep, heavy groundstrokes and superb volleying, winning 20 of 24 points at net.
"Some of the games she didn't let me do anything," Radwanska said after the match. "I think she's a very consistent player. She's always playing on the same level. It's not like up and down like the other girls."
Li will next play No. 2-ranked Sharapova, who said she can also 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 and owns an 8-4 head-to-head record against Li. But she believes she's a stronger player this year.
"I'm getting a little bit older, getting more experience," Li said. "Right now, I really enjoy every match."
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