China’s Li Na has come closer than any Asian to winning the Australian Open singles crown and, if she can avoid a Melbourne Park meltdown, is a good outside bet to add another to her lengthy list of tennis “firsts” next week.
The 30-year-old has a good recent track record at Melbourne Park, reaching the 2010 semi-finals, losing the 2011 final to Kim Clijsters and then crashing out to the Belgian in the fourth round last year having given up four match points.
Critics of the world number six, and there have been many in China over the years, would point to last year’s defeat as an example of the mental fragility that has dogged Li throughout her career.
At times she can be an all-conquering superwoman pounding her opponents into submission with her raking groundstrokes. Just as easily, Li can suddenly fall apart and, apparently unable to string two serves together, plummet to defeat.
There was just a hint of that fragility in her victory over American qualifier Madison Keys at the Sydney International warm-up event on Wednesday, where she lost the first set before reaching the semi-finals with a 4-6 7-6 6-2 victory.
“I was a little bit nervous at the beginning of the match. If you play the young player, you never know what might happen, what they might do on the court,” she said after tackling the big-serving teenager for the first time.
“It’s very good I could have (a tough) match before Australian Open to see how strong I am on the court though.”
Li stood down her coach and husband Jiang Shan after last season and has been working with Justine Henin’s former mentor Carlos Rodriguez.
“He gave me a lot of tough times when I was training with him,” Li said.
“First three days, my husband didn’t come with me. After three days, I was calling him saying, ‘Please come with me’. I was thinking about retiring after three days, because he’s really, really tough.”
The result has been a more attacking Li, even if she is not yet delivering everything Rodriguez wants.
“He feels I can still do even more,” she said.
“You know, it’s very tough if you’ve got new thing. You need time to recover. You need time to get used to it. So where once you needed time to think about it, maybe you can do it automatically.”