The Call of the Mall

Friday, March 16, 2007 /by

Li Na wilted in the heat today and won one just one game in the critical third set against Daniela Hantuchova in the semifinals of the Pacific Life Open, and was surprised at how quickly and meekly she folded. But the good news for you Li fans is that I have found the absolutely, positively foolproof way to keep her name straight. Her surname is Li, so just think: It’s Li, with an "L" as in Last name. Am I smart, or what?Nila

Of course this doesn’t solve the fundamental problem of whether or not to use the western method (first name first, in which case she's Na Li) of identifying her, or the Chinese way, in which she is Li Na. Hail, I’m not that sure it matters all that much, as it’s a piece of cake either way; this girl has the shortest combined name of anyone since, well, Hu Na. If you want to remember which is her first and last name, must remember, it's Hu, as in Hahahaha, joke’s on you, Mr. Monolingual westerner!

Li seems to have shed a fair amount of what I assume is baby fat (although she’ll be 25 in a few days) in the past few months, and I’ve always thought highly of her competitive drive as well as her clean game. I always like players who know how to know how to keep a low center of gravity, knees bent, from backswing through impact and slightly beyond, although it isn’t the only way to get the job done by any means. Has anyone ever seen John McEnroe bend his knees, except when he’s serving?

At the end of the second set, I went into the press center and turned up the volume to catch the conversation between Hantuchova and her coach,  Eduardo Nicolas. I didn’t hear a whole lot, except what appeared to be a feeble complaint from Hantuchova about how aggressively Li was playing, and the sound of Nicolas’s voice: Play like a lion. . . like a lion! Play ever point like it’s match point, to the end!

Now you know why Eddie gets the Big Money! But excuse me, shouldn’t that be lioness?

At the same time, poor Li was sitting all alone, sipping her Gatorade, and then she decided to take advantage of the amenities in the ladies’ room before both women disappeared for the 10-minute “extreme heat” break. It didn’t seem quite fair to watch Hantuchova getting counsel while poor Li sat, suffering in the heat,  all alone.

But I came to find out that it was by choice. Her coach/husband Jiang Shan is here (she also gets help from Sandon Stolle), but he resisted the catwalk and stayed in his seat in the stadium. Li is kind of old school about this, which is another reason to like her. In her presser, I asked why she didn’t consult with her coach, get a little of that, Play like a lion! action for herself. "No, I didn't say for the coach, because I want to try for myself.  I want to play myself, yeah.  Because for this tournament, I didn't sign for the coach.  But my coach was watch play every match, yeah."

Well, maybe she should have consulted her coach. When she came back out, she played poorly, whacking the kitten for all it was worth at almost every chance she got – this despite the fact that Hantuchova has been involved in a couple of battles here where the “C” word came into play (that’s “C” for “choke). Somebody was going to lose this match, why beat her to the punch? She explained why later:

I mean, you know, final set start, actually because I know I was a little bit tired.  I just want to hit a lot of winner, because I didn't want play a lot in the court.  I want to hit, like, one or two good shots and then finish the point.  So but I miss a lot. And after three games, I think, "Okay.  All you can do."  Nothing you do.  Always miss.  And then she never miss.  She win all the points, yeah.

. . .Yeah, I mean, on the ten-minute break, I think more time.  Yeah, maybe just rest ten minutes and then come to court hot, because I think about the weather was hot, so the weather was more hot. . .  I think, okay, I tired from my legs, so I think my legs was more heavy, yeah. I feel my legs was heavy, so I can't jump, hit big serve, yeah.

What she meant was, she didn’t really feel the full effects of the heat until after the heat break, and her heavy legs helped account for the two double-faults she hit to end the match.

Jerry Magee of the San Diego Union-Tribune, cut to the chase (surprise, surprise!), asking, or, rather, dispensing some grandfatherly advice: “Next time you're playing in such heat, maybe it would be a good idea not to think of the heat.  You say I think the weather was hot, so the weather was more hot, so forget it.”

He’s got a rough, authoritative manner, but it didn’t faze Li, she replied, “  Yes, and if I play hot weather, I think, okay it's cold.”

Everyone laughed, including Li. They say you really know a language when you can say something funny in it, so Li just got her GED in English.

Ultimately, though, this was a fine opportunity for Li, and I wondered if she hadn't approached the match a bit casually, while being fully aware of how the heat might have made her so crazy she thought her name was Na Li. She made uncharacteristic errors in the first set, but still stretched Hantuchova to 7-5. In the second set, she dominated Hantuchova and had a great head of steam going when she won it. The heat break really killed her, and whether or not she could have found the Wilanders to fight harder in the third is now a moot point. But getting into a big final with Bammer or Kuznetsova to beat isn’t the worst deal, no matter how hot it is. I was disappointed.

Li has been asserting her independence lately, and she showed a fair degree of personal courage in  dispensing with the obligatory translator - the one who, I always suspected, was as also directed to sanitize and edit Li's remarks as he saw fit. You know those folks: they can turn the Gettysburg Address into a dissertation comparable to the fine print in an ad for Viagra.

Li admitted that she had not bought her airline ticket for Miami yet, and this had nothing to do with wanting a piece of the Kooz, or Bammer, in a final. She admitted, “I want to go shopping for tomorrow and maybe leave after tomorrow."

“Where will you go shopping?”

“ They say there is outlet near here.”

“The what?”

“Outlet, outlet.  A lot of Chinese girls, they go yesterday.  So I said you shopping for that.  So I want to go there.”

“What are you going to buy?”

“Everything, if I like it.”

“Sounds like you're going to spend the day.”

“Yeah, because, I mean, I play semifinal here, I want to buy some gift for myself, yeah, and play next tournament, yeah.”

Today, Indian Wells semis, tomorrow, Old Navy! The call of the mall is hard to resist. Maybe tomorrow is the last day of the Big Spring Sale.

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