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.

 

News
peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
Sport
Lewis Hamilton will start the Singapore Grand Prix from pole, with Nico Rosberg second and Daniel Ricciardo third
F1... for floodlit Singapore Grand Prix
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvHe is only remaining member of original cast
Arts and Entertainment
tvHighs and lows of the cast's careers since 2004
PROMOTED VIDEO
Sport
Fans hold up a scarf at West Ham vs Liverpool
footballAfter Arsenal's clear victory, focus turns to West Ham vs Liverpool
New Articles
i100... she's just started school
News
news
New Articles
i100
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
life
Arts and Entertainment
musicBiographer Hunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original manuscripts
Sport
football
New Articles
i100... despite rising prices
Caption competition
Caption competition
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.

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam