MELBOURNE—In the big arenas at the Australian Open, the first thing that every winning player must do is an on-court interview. It’s usually an enjoyable affair. The players are happy, they’re trying to be personable for the public, and they’re often already friendly with Channel 7 interviewers like Rennae Stubbs, Todd Woodbridge, and Jim Courier. It’s enough to make an ink-stained wretch from the print media grumble, “Why don’t they smile when we ask them questions?”
One of the most personable and popular on-court interview subjects is Li Na. She has been a regular winner Down Under over the last four years, reaching a final and a semifinal, and the Australian crowd looks forward to her dry, sometimes cutting wit. Li knows the drill by now, and does her best to live up to her reputation. She knows it so well, in fact, that in her chat with Channel 7’s Sam Smith after her quarterfinal win today, Li brought up what she knew was going to be a big topic of discussion: her relationship with her (relatively) new coach, Carlos Rodriguez, and his tough new training regimen. In the past, the Aussies have gotten a kick out of her stories about the other man in her life, her husband Jiang Shan, and her gruff treatment of him.
As for the new guy, Li told the audience that, after three days of being run ragged by Rodriguez, she had to pull him aside and have a talk.
“I’m old,” she told him.
Li is 30, which is no longer as old as it once was on a tennis court. But to hear her tell it, Rodriguez, the longtime mentor to Justine Henin, worked her “like a teenager” in Beijing for three weeks during the off-season.
“Like five, six hours [of work],” Li said today back in the interview room, where, it must be admitted, she was all smiles and jokes, just as she was on TV. “But not only for tennis. Tennis like maybe two, three hours, but fitness for two, three hours as well.”
“After three days I was dying. My husband didn’t come with me in Beijing. I call him and say”—she lowered her voice toward a stage whisper, as if she were making sure the absent Rodriguez couldn’t hear her—“I say, ‘Carlos is crazy.’”
Li’s husband was no help. After watching Rodriguez put his wife through her paces, Jian told her, “I’m tired,” just from watching.
“Don’t say that,” Li retorted. “I’m doing exercises, you’re only sitting there.”
So goes the comically trying life of Li Na. She and Rodriguez have been doing something right, because after her win today, she’s in her third Australian Open semifinal in four years. She also turned the tables on Radwanska, who had beaten her in straight sets last week in Sydney, and who was 13-0 so far in 2013.
Li's 7-5, 6-3 win wasn’t the prettiest Grand Slam quarterfinal win ever recorded; one Australian commentator described it as a “knockdown, drag out brawl.” The first game went to six deuces and lasted for more than 10 minutes, and the two players tossed breaks of serve, often at love, back and forth all afternoon. By the end of the fifth game, Li had already amassed 19 unforced errors, yet she was only down 2-3. It was an ugly struggle between women with opposing strengths and weaknesses, Li’s erratic ball-striking vs. Radwanska’s low-powered craft.
Radwanska hadn’t dropped a set this season, but it was Li who gathered herself and found her range when it mattered. She broke at love when Aga served for the first set at 5-4, and actually proved the steadier player in the last two games to close it out. In the second set, Li was even better, controlling rallies and connecting on every putaway opportunity. Radwanska, who had won tournaments in each of the two weeks before Melbourne, couldn’t retrieve them. She didn’t have a chance to weave her web of tennis deceit today.
Aga being Aga, she took the loss in stride. She said Li played better than she had in Sydney, and while she admitted to being flat today—“definitely I wasn’t fast enough”—Radwanska denied that the matches she’s played this year had caught up with her. She pointed out that Li had played the same number of events. Rather than being down after getting bounced out of a Grand Slam, Aga perked up when she was asked where she was heading next: “I’ll go home for a little bit,” she said brightly. If you’re waiting, like I’ve been, for Radwanska to shift her focus away from the weekly grind and make a more concerted effort at targeting the big tournaments, it sounds like you’re going to have to wait a while longer. Like her fellow underdog David Ferrer, she doesn't seem to be thinking any bigger.
(Aga also came up with a head scratching comment along the way. Asked to assess why Li was such a tough opponent, she said, “I think she’s a very consistent player. She’s always playing on the same level. It’s not like up and down like the other girls.” That's not the conventional view of Li Na, to say the least.)
As for Li, she had a couple of hiccups trying to close out the match. She decelerated on a few shots, and appeared ready to hand Radwanska back a break of serve at 5-3. Last year, Li lost a heartbreaker here to Kim Clijsters after having four match points. It was not unlike the type of defeat suffered by Nicolas Almagro at the hands of Ferrer this afternoon in Laver. Li has admitted that the loss has haunted her this week. “It’s something you couldn’t forget, always in your mind,” she said today.
But she cleared her mind and held off two break points in the final game to close it out. Asked later if she was feeling a little calmer on the court these days, she nodded. It was for the same reason, Li claimed, that she told Carlos Rodriguez to cool it on the training.
“Getting a little bit old,” she said.
It hurts and it helps.