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.

 

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

The secret CIA Starbucks

The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

One million Britons using food banks

Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

How to run a restaurant

As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
10 best tote bags

Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

Paul Scholes column

I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...