Australian Open 2014: Li Na’s bold switch pays off with oldest triumph

Li Na is the oldest ever female Australian Open champion

Li Na, the new Australian Open champion, is used to making tough decisions. Twelve years ago, at the age of 20, she enrolled in journalism school after giving up tennis in frustration at the insistence of the Chinese tennis authorities that she concentrate on doubles. Two years later, following encouragement from her husband, Jiang Shan, she returned to the sport and subsequently became one of the first Chinese players to break free from the country’s tennis federation.

On a personal and professional level, however, no decision was greater than the one Li made two summers ago. “It was after Wimbledon in 2012,” she explained here on Saturday night following her 7-6, 6-0 victory over Dominika Cibulkova in the final. “I said to my agent: ‘Please find a coach for me. I need to change something because otherwise I think I will drop [in the rankings]’.”

Li’s coach was Jiang, her husband, whom she had first met when she was just 12 years old. Thankfully the decision to find a new coach was a mutual one. “It wasn’t a very tough decision because both of us realised there was a problem,” Li said. “Of course my husband wanted me to improve, to be better.”

After her French Open triumph in 2011, when she became the first Asian player of either sex to win a Grand Slam singles title, Li saw her form dip, to the extent that she did not go beyond the fourth round of her next six Grand Slam tournaments. Her agent, Max Eisenbud, having been asked to find a new coach, lined up Carlos Rodriguez, who had enjoyed huge success with Justine Henin.

“Carlos had a tennis academy in Beijing,” Li said. “We decided it was better for me to train in Beijing. I can spend more time with my family and friends. I think it was a pretty good decision because both my husband and I are feeling much easier in life.”

With Jiang now her hitting partner and with Alex Stober working as her physical trainer, Li has found her perfect team. The 31-year-old, who is the oldest ever female champion here, made consistent improvement last year and won the Melbourne final at the third attempt, having been runner-up in 2011 and 2013.

“It’s not only about Carlos,” Li said. “Since I’ve been working with Alex I haven’t had an injury. I’ve been healthy on the court. My husband is my hitting partner and he does everything. I don’t have to think about too much. I just focus on the court. Even at the start of last year I was much, much stronger on the court.”

Stober, who previously worked with Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi and Gustavo Kuerten, has been particularly important. While Rodriguez has helped Li to become a better all-round player, her athleticism and strength remain her two greatest qualities, as Cibulkova discovered. The Slovakian, who ran Li close in a tense and error-strewn first set, eventually found herself outrun and outpowered as Li found greater consistency.

Li said: “Even right now in training over the winter Carlos always said to me: ‘You’re much stronger.’ I said to him: ‘Don’t lie to me!’ Winter training was very tough, but I didn’t feel it was as tough compared with last year. Alex also said he had never seen me as fit as I am now. I was like: ‘Have you been talking to Carlos?’ I always say that I don’t care about age.”

Already one of the world’s highest-earning sportswomen, Li is likely to be in even greater demand with sponsors now, but insisted: “I don’t really care about these things. I always ask my husband. I say: ‘OK, you have to take care of the money.’ For me if I have $10 I will spend it all. I never leave anything. I really don’t know what I should do with my money. Before I would give it to my mum. Now I give it to my husband.”

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