Australian Open 2014: Li Na praises coach Carlos Rodriguez for giving her a 'new way to play' as she stands on the verge of second Grand Slam title

Na will take on Dominika Cibulkova in the Australian Open final after a number of top seeds fell by the wayside

When Justine Henin retired three years ago for the second and last time, her coach, Carlos Rodriguez, said he could not imagine working with any other player. Within 18 months, however, the Argentinian, had taken on Li Na, the 2011 French Open champion. Tomorrow he will be hoping to crown his work with the 31-year-old Chinese by guiding her to the Australian Open title.

Li’s achievement in becoming the first Asian player of either sex to win a Grand Slam singles title helped make her one of the world’s highest-earning sportswomen, but for a while after her triumph at Roland Garros it seemed that her progress on court had stalled. In her next six Grand Slam tournaments Li never went past the fourth round and she appeared destined to join the group of one-Slam wonders.

Rodriguez, however, has worked hard to develop his charge’s all-round game and the benefits have been clear to see over the last fortnight. Putting aside her struggles in the third round, when she had to save a match point against Lucie Safarova, Li has dominated her opponents, often surprising them with the variety of her game.

The most obvious change Rodriguez has brought about is in Li’s willingness to come forward and play at the net. For years her game was one-dimensional as she looked to win points by outrallying opponents with the power and consistency of her baseline hitting. Now she is proud of the fact that she can win points in different ways.

“I think I have very good volleys,” Li said with a smile when asked today whether she found playing at the net natural. “When Carlos told me for the first time that I could come in more and volley, I just thought: ‘What is this guy talking about?’  In the beginning, I was thinking: ‘Why?  I will stay on the baseline for maybe 100 years and never try to come to the net.’

“But after he tried to tell me that this would be good for me, I tried. I felt good with it. It wasn’t bad.  Especially at Wimbledon last year, I was feeling: ‘If I lose the match, at least I have tried.’  I had found a new way to play.”

Rodriguez has also persuaded Li to change her grip when she serves and hits backhands. “Of course at the beginning it was tough,” Li said. “I had to forget the grip that I had been using for maybe 20 years.  The first couple of days or the first week it was terrible for me because I was always thinking about the old grip. Now I use the new grip and it feels pretty good.”

She added: “When you have been on the tour for many years everybody knows exactly how you play. If I didn't change things I thought I could keep in the top 10 or the top 20, but I couldn’t be the best in the world. So I really wanted to push myself to change a little bit. It’s very tough at first because you fear you might lose what you had, but I trust myself and I trust Carlos. Now I believe these changes have helped me.”

Although Li won only one minor title last year, at Shenzhen, she was runner-up three times – to Victoria Azarenka here at the Australian Open, to Maria Sharapova in Stuttgart and to Serena Williams at the year-ending WTA Championships – and performed at a consistently high level throughout the season. She reached a career-high No 3 in the world rankings at the end of October.

Runner-up here in 2011 and 2013, Li is the clear favourite to win the title, but she should not underestimate Dominika Cibulkova, even though the 24-year-old Slovakian has lost all four of their previous meetings. Cibulkova, who will be competing in her first Grand Slam final, has played the best tennis of her life over the last fortnight, beating four higher-ranked players in Carla Suarez Navarro, Sharapova, Simona Halep and Agnieszka Radwanska. The world No 24 now faces the biggest test of her life.

 

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