Commentary

Coaching carousel catapults Li to title

Updated: June 4, 2011, 2:53 PM ET
By Ravi Ubha | ESPN.com

Jiang Shan, often the butt of Li Na's jokes, was understandably in good spirits after his wife became China's first Grand Slam singles champion by topping Francesca Schiavone.

Reluctant to talk at first, he was eventually happy enough to answer what was supposed to be two questions. Earlier in this memorable fortnight, Li revealed how she essentially fired Jiang as coach and replaced him with Danish Fed Cup captain Michael Mortensen.

Would he rather be husband, or husband and coach?

"Don't ask me this question, please," he said with a massive smile.

But even he knows Team Li made the right decision by bringing on Mortensen, a former pro who enjoyed modest success in doubles.

Ironically enough, it was Caroline Wozniacki's dad, Piotr, who instigated the partnership. Although Wozniacki is the No. 1 player in the world, she's still without a Grand Slam title and was eliminated in the third round in Paris. And Li ousted Wozniacki in the Australian Open semifinals, saving a match point in the process. How nice of him.

Mortensen got the call this spring when he was at his summer residence and jumped at the opportunity.

"I was a big fan of hers and had commentated on a lot of her matches," he said, as Italian fans broke out in song near the player restaurant, saluting Schiavone. "I said, 'Yes' right away. I think she's one of the most interesting players on the tour."

Their collaboration began in Madrid, continued in Rome and peaked in Paris. Though Mortensen has a family and can't travel with Li every week, it's hard to imagine the alliance not continuing. He hopes to work something out.

Those who witnessed Mortensen's methods in Madrid and Rome, WTA tournaments in which on-court coaching is allowed, could see how he transformed Li. He looked more like a sports psychologist, calming down a frequently combustible Li when she would lose her cool.

The on-court conversations, in fact, would lead one to believe he's the calmest coach around.

"He trusts me a lot," Li said during the French Open. "He gives me a lot of confidence."

Even in Saturday's final, when the going got tough late in the second set, his assured, comforting nod was what Li required. It was missing when she went on a four-match losing streak after reaching the Australian Open final, prompting rumors of retirement.

"I just wanted her to see I feel comfortable with the way she's playing," Mortensen said. "When I relax, maybe she relaxed also."

Mortensen, as it turned out, also transformed Li's clay-court game. Prior to this season, Li's most prolific Grand Slam was Wimbledon, where she became the first Chinese quarterfinalist in 2006 then replicated the showing in 2010. At the French, she had never before reached the quarterfinals, unlike at the three other majors.

As recently as Madrid, the athletic Li wasn't comfortable moving around on the sport's slowest surface.

"I thought she had the perfect game for it," Mortensen said. "I said, 'You're strong, have stamina and have all the strokes for it. You just have to get used to it. You just need to get comfortable sliding and use all the strokes in the right away. Don't be afraid of playing your clay-court tennis.'"

She wasn't here.

Li, surging from the confidence gained by ousting three of the hottest players on the tour -- Maria Sharapova, Victoria Azarenka and Petra Kvitova -- in Paris, where she rallied from 3-0 down in the third set, dictated throughout against Schiavone, the defending champion. Only a dip from Li gave Schiavone a small window late in the second set.

Jiang, chided good naturedly by Li in Melbourne because he kept close tabs on her credit card spending, was asked if she could now have carte blanche -- she received 1.2 million euros in prize money.

He wasn't going to get himself in trouble.

Jiang, Li's hitting partner, replied, "Too much. You said two questions, and you asked four," the laugh there again.

London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com.