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Friday, January 25, 2013
Li Na returns to where it all began


Li Na recorded a resounding upset of the seemingly invincible Maria Sharapova at the Australian Open, and it put her in the final opposite Victoria Azarenka. The match represented not only a great continuing run by Li but also the closing of a circle.

Li's successful drive to become the first Asian to win a Grand Slam event began in earnest on these same Melbourne hard courts in 2011, when she reached her first major final and pushed heavily favored Kim Clijsters through three tough sets before capitulating 6-3 in the third.

The Chinese player, now No. 6 and 30 years old, went on to win the French Open in 2011. But then the typical burdens that come with skyrocketing to fame kicked in. She has been subject to dramatic swings of fortune -- and enthusiasm -- since then, so a lot may depend on how Li processes this return to the place where it all began. It could be a powerful source of inspiration, and her (relatively) new coach Carlos Rodriguez is the kind of man who knows exactly what buttons to push to make Li feel like she is capable of doing something big, something special.

Li will need whatever boost she can get against Azarenka, who is the No. 1-ranked player in the world and not lacking in the motivation department either. Over the past two weeks, she has demonstrated that she is not going to give up the title she earned last year -- defeating Sharapova in a one-sided final -- without a fight.

On paper, it's all Azarenka. Li won four of the first five matches they've played, but Azarenka is riding a streak of four consecutive wins and leads the rivalry 5-4. At 23, Azarenka is just entering the sweet spot of career, while Li is a veteran whose days near the very top are numbered.

Li hasn't lost a set in the tournament, while Azarenka has dropped just one. So what can Li do to turn around her losing streak against the Belarusian?

The answer is simple: just what she's been doing for long periods in her six previous matches and what she did particularly well against Sharapova. That is, using her mobility and ultraclean, compact strokes to fire relatively flat lasers, keeping Azarenka off balance with excellent spot serving and -- last but most important -- avoiding any distraction or relaxation of her concentration.

Azarenka knows that pressing Li and forcing her into errors is an excellent formula for getting her flustered. She also knows that Li's return isn't the outstanding feature of her game, so she'll undoubtedly try to damage Li's confidence in that shot. With the serve and her ground game, Azarenka will look to break down Li's forehand -- that shot probably will be the most significant one from either woman in this match.

However, Azarenka is like Sharapova in that she is a hitter who can be goaded into overhitting, and she is also susceptible to what can only be called periodic funks. If Li is susceptible to a loss of focus, Azarenka is sometimes guilty of running off the rails and hitting wild shots.

Both women are well-coached. Sam Sumyk has done a terrific job in smoothing out the game and temperament of reformed hothead Azarenka. But until late last year, Li was usually dissatisfied and underserved by her various coaches. That's different now, and it may be a major factor in the outcome.

Rodriguez made his name as the career-long coach of Justine Henin, the retired Belgian star who overcame her diminutive size (5-foot-5) to win seven Grand Slam titles with a delightful, artistic game. In addition to his mastery of technique and the X's and O's, Rodriguez was a remarkably nurturing coach who knew how to make Henin feel good about herself.

It's pretty obvious that Li hasn't always been positive about her game, and perhaps herself, so Rodriguez's talent in that area can't be ignored. He understands what it means to close the circle and will know just how to present that idea to his protégé.