MASON, Ohio — Li Na, Sloane Stephens and Laura Robson all have new coaches. Here’s the latest from the WTA coaching carousel …
• Li has hired Carlos Rodriguez on a trial basis. The 2011 French Open has been coached by her husband, Jiang Shan, since parting ways with Michael Mortensen last September.
Rodriguez served as Justine Henin’s coach for about 15 years, helping her win seven Grand Slam titles and spend 117 weeks at No. 1. He arrived here on Wednesday night and will join with Li for the first time for her third-round match against Johanna Larsson at the Western & Southern Open on Thursday night.
That’s good, because here’s the thing: They’ve actually never met.
“After Wimbledon, I texted my agent and said I need a new coach,” Li said. “Two weeks later, my agent said, ‘Oh, we have one coach.’ I said, ‘Perfect, I need him.’
“Of course I know him. I was so surprised he also wanted to help me.”
Rodriguez, who runs a tennis academy in Beijing, is fairly well-known in the Chinese coaching community, and Li reached out to other coaches to get their thoughts. She liked what she heard.
“I asked many coaches and they said, ‘Oh, he’s a very positive person. He has good communication with the players.’ I need this right now,” Li said.
While her season could be seen as a disappointment so far, especially in light of her breakthrough run last year at Roland Garros, Li has had solid results working with her husband. Other than a subpar patch from the French Open to the Olympics, the 30-year-old has consistently made it deep in tournaments and is not taking bad losses. She has reached three Premier finals (Sydney, Rome and Montreal), the Round of 16 at the Australian Open and the quarterfinals or better at seven of 12 tournaments.
For Li, though, the coaching change seems less about her results and more about restoring balance in her personal life. She’s never kept it a secret that having her husband as her coach can create confusion both on and off the court. She has acknowledged that it’s difficult for her not to take things personally even if Jiang is wearing his coaching cap.
Li praised her husband’s work as coach but said the change will benefit both of them.
“Sometimes training so hard on the court and I think, ‘You’re my husband, why you treat me so hard,’” Li said. “He’s doing a good job but it’s not a good way for the wife.”
With Rodriguez on board, Li said, “husband is husband and coach is coach. Otherwise, it’s too tough for my mind.”
• Stephens has cut ties with longtime coach Roger Smith (who is now trying to revive Donald Young’s career) and is working with David Nainkin, who is also coaching Sam Querrey. The partnership began at Wimbledon, but the 19-year-old Stephens has previous experience with Nainkin.
“I worked with David a lot when I was with the USTA,” said Stephens, who pushed top seed Agnieszka Radwanska to three sets before losing their third-round match at the Western & Southern Open on Thursday. “I am really comfortable with him and trust him, so it was just an easy transition for me.”
Stephens joked of sharing a coach with Querrey, “Obviously Sam gets priority. Well, I get priority because I’m a girl.”
Stephens has steadily climbed the rankings in the last year, rising to a career-high No. 49 in July (she remains in that spot this week). This time last year she was ranked outside the top 100 and made a strong run to the third round of the U.S. Open. Though her results have been uneven, Stephens has shown a love of the big stage, saving her best for Slams and Premier tournaments. She made it through qualifying and reached the third round in Miami (losing to Maria Sharapova) before a series of strong clay results led her to the Round of 16 at Roland Garros and the third round at Wimbledon.
Nevertheless, Stephens said it was simply time to shake things up.
“Just kind of needed a change,” she said with a shrug. “Everything was going well. You know, it was time. I think Roger and I had an amazing journey together; now he’s working with Donald. I saw him here [in Cincinnati] and I was so excited to see him. You know, things happen; people change. It’s something I think it was best for both of us.”
With off-the-charts athletic ability and a game built on speed and power, the expectations for Stephens are building. But her tendency to lose concentration during matches has doomed her more times than she can count, and Stephens admits that it’s something she is committed to addressing with Nainkin. Earlier this summer, Stephens had match points in the second-set tiebreaker against Melanie Oudin in Carlsbad. She failed to convert them and proceeded to lose the third set 6-0.
“I’ve got to concentrate and stay it in it more. When I get out my teen years, that’ll go away,” she joked. “I have moments where I have brain farts. I don’t think that it’s that bad, but it’s something that you can always improve on.”
• Robson recently announced that she’s working with Zeljko Krajan, the man behind Dinara Safina’s rise to No. 1 in 2009 and who helped Dominika Cibulkova win her first tour title last year. The 18-year-old Brit has been without a full-time dedicated coach since her split with Martijn Bok in the fall of 2010, using a combination of coaches from the LTA, Adidas and the Mouratoglou Academy in Paris, where she trained in 2011.
“For the moment it’s still sort of a trial basis,” Robson said. “But it’s been going well so far. He’s really knowledgeable so I’m hoping to improve.
“For me, Adidas and the LTA wasn’t really a long-term thing. The Adidas guys will be the first to say that they can’t go to every tournament with you. I just didn’t think it was that realistic to have them coaching me when I’m traveling so much. The LTA helped a lot this past year. I’ve had some good results with Luke Milligan, who was traveling with me. But it was time to get someone new in with experience.”
Cibulkova spoke openly about the reasons behind her April split with the hard-driving Krajan.
“Zeljko was a great coach, but in the end it was not helping me,” Cibulkova said last month. “He was just putting too much pressure and with every ball I missed and every match I lost I was just putting myself really down because he was very, very tough. He’s very intense all the time. I think me being with him two years is something now I don’t know how I could handle it, but it made me maybe tougher in some way.”
Robson, a silver medalist in mixed doubles at the London Olympics, continues to make slow strides in her first full year on the WTA Tour. She made a name for herself at 14 when she became the first Brit to win the Wimbledon girls’ event since Anabel Croft in 1984, beating the likes of Oudin and Bojana Jovanovski. Age-restriction rules prohibited her from playing a full schedule until this year, and injuries and illness slowed her early in 2012. But now injury-free, she made her first WTA semifinal last month, in Palermo, and scored the biggest win of her young career at the Olympics, upsetting No. 23 Lucie Safarova in straight sets. At a career-high No. 88, Robson is the youngest player in the top 100.
The coaching move is a strong sign of her commitment to her career and desire to improve sooner rather than later, even if that means being under Krajan’s intense scrutiny. In addition, he has a history of success working with offensive-minded players such as Robson, a natural ball striker.
Robson is a work in progress. Her serve, which she can pump in the 115-mph range if she wants to, is still prone to break down under pressure. Her patterns are effective but predictable and she’s still learning how to use her lefty weapons to compete on the tour (hint: Petra Kvitova). And Robson will be the first to admit that she wants to work on her strength and fitness and become quicker in recovering when she gets pulled wide.
Aside from the technical aspects of her game, the greater question is what effect Krajan will have on Robson’s psyche. She tends to get nervous when holding a lead and makes things more complicated than they need to be. Much like Stephens, Robson has a habit of losing focus and getting negative on the court, muttering to herself with what at times is a scathing level of self-deprecation. Whether Krajan can help on that front remains to be seen.
“I do talk to myself but I’m trying not to,” Robson said. “I’ve got to focus. I can’t keep telling myself off.”