Li Na Reaches Third Australian Open Final
Li Na's coach unzips his tennis bag, pulls out a racket and grips it like a hammer, with the strings perpendicular to the ground. He turns his hand an eighth of an inch to the left so his knuckles point ever so slightly upward.
This grip is commonly used by tennis professionals on serves and backhands. It helps with spin and control.
Li, who Thursday reached her third Australian Open final, never used to hold a racket like this. Her coach, Carlos Rodriguez, figured it would be crazy to suggest the former Grand Slam champion make such a fundamental change to her game, especially given Li's age when they met.
'If somebody says you want to change the grip on the serve for somebody who is 31 years old, you say, 'Please, go home,'' said Rodriguez, who used to coach former No. 1 Justine Henin.
But Li, he said, is unlike most players. 'She has this feeling,' Rodriguez said, pointing to his hands and wiggling his fingers. 'She is like a kid of 20 years old. She's ready to change and do whatever she needs to do to improve.'
So the 31-year-old adjusted her serve grip, and her backhand grip, too. When she is under pressure, she puts more spin on her second serve and her backhand, which reduces her errors, Rodriguez said.
'Before, when she was tight, the ball was flying,' Rodriguez said. 'Now she can come a little bit over the ball.'
Li is on the verge of winning her first title at the Australian Open. After her 6-2, 6-4 victory over Eugenie Bouchard, Li is back in the final here for the third time. In 2011, she lost to Kim Clijsters. Last year, she lost to Victoria Azarenka. During that match, she fell down twice, one time hitting her head on the court. In both finals, she won the first set and lost the next two.
Saturday, Li will be the favorite against surprise finalist Dominika Cibulkova, the No. 20 seed who beat Agnieszka Radwanska 6-1, 6-2 in Thursday's other semifinal. Li seemed to sense that this might be her moment, but tried to keep her expectations in check.
'Pretty close to the trophy,' she said. 'At least I try to not [fall] down this time.'
Li, who won the French Open in 2011, has long been one of the most talented women in tennis. She's an excellent mover and a powerful ball striker, one of few who can match the aggressive strokes of Serena Williams, the sport's most powerful female player. Rodriguez, who began working with Li in the summer of 2012, has encouraged her to approach the net more and to add more variety to her baseline game with slices and chips, the tools that Henin used so well.
'Justine learned everything when she was 10, 12, 14,' Rodriguez said. 'Li Na, she had one path at the beginning, baseline, baseline, hit, hit.' But Li has incorporated new skills with uncommon ease, Rodriguez said. 'She is unique,' he said. 'Her potential is unbelievable.'
Li's confidence hasn't always been quite as impressive. Last year, she considered retiring after losing at a Wimbledon warm-up tournament in Eastbourne. She decided to play Wimbledon and lost in the quarterfinals. That result, she says, motivated her to carry on.
It often takes luck to win a Grand Slam tennis tournament, and Li has had lots of it in Australia. In the third round against Lucie Safarova, she faced a match point. Safarova, a hard-hitting lefty, missed a down-the-line winner by an inch or so. After the match, Li said she felt she had been given a second life at the tournament.
Some more good fortune: Li could win this event without playing a single player who has won a Grand Slam singles title, or for that matter anyone seeded higher than No. 20. It's a rare chance, and probably her best, to win a second major. Asked if she felt fortunate, she gave a cautious answer.
'Until now, yes,' she said.
李娜距离她的首个澳网冠军还有一步之遥。在以6比2和6比4直落两局击败加拿大选手布沙尔(Eugenie Bouchard)后，李娜第三次杀入澳网决赛。李娜在2011年澳网公开赛中败给了克里斯特尔斯(Kim Clijsters)，去年败给了阿扎伦卡(Victoria Azarenka)，在与阿扎伦卡对阵时，李娜两次摔倒，有一次头部撞到了球场地面。这两次比赛李娜都是赢了第一盘而输了后两盘。
本周六，李娜将成为夺冠的大热门，对阵以黑马姿态闯入决赛的20号种子选手齐布科娃(Dominika Cibulkova)，后者在周四的另一场半决赛上以6-1、6-2的比分击败了拉德万斯卡(Agnieszka Radwanska)。李娜似乎感觉到这会是她的辉煌时刻，但极力克制着期望。