MELBOURNE, Australia — Tough. That’s the word Li Na used to describe her Australian Open, where she won her second Grand Slam title.
It was a surprising word choice, given her good luck at the first major tournament of the year. Ana Ivanovic’s upset of No. 1 Serena Williams paved the way to the final for Li, who had been in line to face Williams in the semifinals. The upsets of two-time defending champion Victoria Azarenka and No. 3 Maria Sharapova on the other side of the draw didn’t hurt, either. Then there was a third-round escape against Lucie Safarova, who came within “five centimeters” of sending Li home. All told, the fourth-seeded Li didn’t have to beat a top-20 player in order to become the first Asian player to win the Australian Open.
But no matter the draw, she still had to face her toughest opponent: herself. The heavy favorite against 24th-ranked Dominika Cibulkova in the final, Li tried to tell herself that her experience would keep her calm. After all, this was the third time in the last four years that she was walking onto Rod Laver Arena with the trophy on the line. She had never lost to Cibulkova in four meetings. She had the crowd behind her and was peaking at the right time.
And then the errors came.
Of all the things Li had stuffed into her trusty Babolat bag, including eight rackets she calls “Li Na 1, Li Na 2, Li Na 3″ and so on, she had forgotten to pack her forehand. That shot, the less consistent of her two groundstrokes, was a disaster early in the match. Sixteen of Li’s 25 unforced errors in the first set were forehands. And the misses weren’t even close.
The old Li Na would have erupted. But the new Li Na? She remained composed.
“Before, I would have had an explosion, for sure,” Li said. “Opponents see that as a chance: ‘Oh, I can beat her.’ So right now, even if I’m angry at myself, I still try to keep it there. Don’t show anything.”
She didn’t exactly hide the tension. One could see how hard she was struggling to control her emotions, even as Li insisted that she thought she had a good poker face going. But she did manage to hold it together, pulling out the first set in a tiebreaker and committing only three forehand unforced errors (and just five overall) in a second-set bagel of Cibulkova.
Saturday’s victory marked Li’s first major title since the 2011 French Open, where, as the sixth seed, she defeated four consecutive top-10 players in Sharapova, Azarenka, Petra Kvitova and defending champion Francesca Schiavone to become the first Asian Grand Slam champion. Li played unencumbered by pressure or expectation — she had never been past the fourth round at Roland Garros — and that’s when she produces her best tennis.
Unprepared for just how life-changing that win would be, Li struggled for the rest of 2011. While she fared better the following year, she also lost in the fourth round as the defending French Open champion, the second round at Wimbledon and the first round of the London Olympics. Having tumbled out of the top 10, she told her agent, Max Eisenbud, that she wanted to hire a coach. Eisenbud suggested Carlos Rodriguez. While many were writing her off at age 30, Li recommitted.
“The most important thing about working with him the last one and a half, two years is he didn’t tell me exactly what I should do,” Li said. “He would say, ‘You have to plan for yourself. You have to know what you should do.’”
Instead, he simply asked questions. The process has helped her find herself and set her own goals.
The effect of having such a successful coach was immediate. In the first tournament of their partnership, Li advanced to the final of the 2012 Rogers Cup. A week later, she won the Western & Southern Open, her first title since the French Open. She has made the quarterfinals or better at 16 of 19 non-clay tournaments with Rodriguez, including the semifinals of six of her last seven events.
Clay tournaments have proved more challenging, and a second-round loss at last year’s French Open sparked media criticism in China that Li said nearly prompted her to quit. But she rebounded to reach the quarterfinals at Wimbledon and the semifinals of the U.S. Open. Li’s 2013 goal was to finish a career-high No. 3, which she accomplished by making the final of the WTA Championships. This year the objective was to win another Slam. Four weeks into the season, she can check that off the list, too.
“When last year I said I wanted to be top three, nobody [believed in me],” Li said. “At the beginning of this year, I say, I want to win another Grand Slam title. Nobody believed [in me]. More important is I believe, [Carlos] believes, my team believes. That’s all.”
Li says she now intends to improve her ranking and pursue another Slam. (Li, who moved up from No. 4 to No. 3 after her Australian Open title, trails No. 2 Azarenka by only 11 points.) A former U.S. Open semifinalist and three-time Wimbledon quarterfinalist, it’s not outside the realm of possibility to imagine a career Slam if she consistently plays at this level.
“Of course it is very easy to say I want to win another one,” she said. “But you have to know how much work has to be done just to win a Grand Slam. So of course if I want to win another one or two, I have to go back to [working] even [harder] than before; otherwise, no chance.”
So does Li, who will turn 32 next month, have the hunger to keep it up?
“Of course. I didn’t have dinner,” she quipped. “If I still play, I’m still hungry.”
The biggest concern for Li is avoiding the letdown she experienced after her first Slam title. Li knows what to expect this time and, with Rodriguez by her side, she’s confident she’ll handle it better.
“At this moment,” she said, “my tennis is going up.”