Li Na thought her new coach, Carlos Rodriguez, was "crazy" when he pushed her so hard in training last year, but the 30-year-old Chinese admits she is now reaping the benefit. Li reached her third Australian Open semi-final in four years when she beat Agnieszka Radwanska 7-5, 6-3 yesterday to earn a showdown with Maria Sharapova.
Rodriguez, who guided Justine Henin to seven Grand Slam titles, started working with Li after she had disappointed at Wimbledon and the Olympics last summer. Her previous coach was her husband, Jiang Shan, whom she called in despair after her first taste of six-hour workouts at Rodriguez's academy in Beijing. "After three days, I was dying," she said. "Because my husband didn't come with me to Beijing, I called him and said: 'Carlos is crazy'."
Jiang went to Beijing to see for himself. "I was doing some exercises with Carlos," Li recalled. "My husband was sitting in the gym. After I was halfway done, he was like: 'Are you finished?' I said: 'No, only halfway.' He said: 'I'm tired!' I said: 'Don't say that. I'm doing exercises, you're only sitting'."
Li, who became the first Asian to claim a Grand Slam singles title when she won the 2011 French Open, looked in excellent shape against Radwanska, who had not lost a match this year. However, Li will need to be at the top of her game against Sharapova, who beat Ekaterina Makarova 6-2, 6-2 and has dropped only nine games en route to the last four, an Australian Open record.
There are some significant links between Li and Sharapova. Thomas Hogstedt, Sharapova's coach, used to work with the Chinese, while the two players share the same agent, Max Eisenbud.
Sharapova was asked whose side Eisenbud would be on. "I think we know the answer to that," she laughed. "Max has been my manager since I was 11 years old. I think when you've worked for someone for as many years as we have it's beyond money and deals."