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They Said What? Li's Loss on Lenglen

Tuesday, May 27, 2014 /by
AP Photos
AP Photos

“But, you know, first match always tough. Doesn't matter how many tournament you play already, but first match always be there, because tension is different. Always tough to pass the first round.”Li Na, seeded No. 2 in the French Open, after her first-round loss to France’s Kristina Mladenovic.

PARIS—For the first time ever, both singles champions from the previous major lost in the first round of the next one. Li joined Stan Wawrinka, the men’s No. 3 seed and fellow Australian Open champ, on the sidelines today—and she sang a similar tune.

“Of course the easy thing I can say is ‘bad day’ for me, but it's not, I’m 100 percent sure,” said Li, who claimed to feel “pretty good” right up through the warm-up. “The problem is myself. I don't think I'm doing well on the court. I don't think totally what I should do, like especially I didn't follow the game plan.”

This was one of those matches that resists statistical analysis. Mladenovic won it going away, 7-5, 3-6, 6-1, yet Li converted nearly 15 percent more of her first-serve attempts (65 percent to 51 percent). Granted, Li made more unforced errors—37 to 25—but she also hit six more winners than Mlandeovic (27 to 21) and was a nearly perfect 10 of 11 at the net. It’s painfully obvious that this was a winnable match for her.

Just yesterday, Wawrinka partially redeemed himself after his loss by sitting for a memorable press conference, during which he said many of the things Li only obliquely alluded to: His training before the tournament went well. He felt good. He was eager. But once his match against Guillermo Garcia-Lopez started, it all went downhill quickly.

“Sometimes in a match I expect more from myself,” he said. “I’m not happy with small things, even when I’m playing okay. I’m not really happy because I know how well I can play.”

That last reference was a nod to the burden carried by all Grand Slam champions. Wawrinka also spoke about about the need to put “a puzzle” back together, because his career forms a different picture now. “After winning a Grand Slam, a Masters, being number three in the world—everything is different, and I still didn’t find all the pieces.”

The enemy, as many other players who have gone through this kind of trial, is perfection, or the hunt for it. Li went out there against Mladenovic and, after briefly popping to life in the second set, she appeared to switch off. You might say the pressure got to her, although in such cases the pressure passes through so many filters that it becomes something different, something unnameable.

“Of course it's tough, because it is not about—I think today is not about tennis game,” Li admitted later. “It's so many thing are wrong.”

“Can you elaborate on those things?,” someone asked.

“It can be anything.”

She would go no further.

Whatever the case, consistently great players never forget the old admonition, “the perfect is the enemy of the good.” They don’t go out there and stubbornly refuse to think of what to do, willfully ignore the game plan or, disgruntled by the the failure to be perfect, switch off. They’re liberated by the privilege of pressure rather than crushed by the weight of it.

Wawrinka at least has the excuse that the rarefied air breathed by Grand Slam champions is new to him. Give him at least to the end of the year to adjust to it. Li, though, has been a Grand Slam champ since 2011. This is where she won that first, precious major. If she hasn’t figured it out by now, it’s unlikely she will—Carlos Rodriguez or no Carlos Rodriguez in her corner.

When Li was asked if Wawrinka’s loss yesterday was on her mind, she answered, somewhat flippantly, “Sorry, I didn’t contact with him.”

Even if she had, it’s hard to imagine it would have done much good.

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