19 January - 1 February 2015
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Put yourself on court with ReturnServe. From analysing returns on the court to measuring social sentiment. Data is a game changer. IBM.
Li Na

Li Na is a curious case. Just when you deign to think that she has it all figured out, that you know how she's doing, she does the opposite.

Trailing Lucie Safarova 1-6, 5-6 in their third round match, match point down, the world No.3 and two-time Australian Open finalist was on the verge of making Juan Martin Del Potro's exit yesterday seem like small potatoes.

How could a player with a 6-1 head-to-head in her favour, possibly find herself in a position of such quagmire? In short, she hit the ball out. Repeatedly.

"You cannot play good tennis every day.  So I was try to do the best," Li said afterwards.

"That mean I can hit very good on the court.  If I can't hit very good, otherwise I only can run or I only can fight every point to try to stay more longer."

Winning one lonely game in the first set, holding serve in the third game, Li achieved the rare distinction of hitting more unforced errors, 18, than points won, 14. Her groundstrokes sailed long and wide, and her net approaches, that burgeoning facet of her game that was so demonstrative in her first two wins, were largely non-existent. Safarova, by contrast, won the set with just two winners.

"I lose the first set, is pretty easy, fast.  I was thinking about, OK, if you continue like this, go home.  Otherwise, I mean, is no other choice," Li said.

"So I have to change something on the court very quickly because, you know, the opponent didn't give you much time you can cover there.  Like I say before, only I can do is play ball back to the court, run whole court to see if I can get a chance."

In the second set, Li faced break points in the opening game, broke, was broken, and had chances to break again. While Safarova, left shoulder and right thigh heavily strapped, sprung about the court, the only situation in which Li was winning the baseline exchanges was when the rally went beyond nine shots. Which happened once.

"Oh Li Na," she muttered.  

But as Safarova stepped up to serve for the match and a place in the Australian Open fourth round for the first time since 2007, the world No.26 fell foul of Li's own curse. She hit a forehand unforced error to let Li live.

But again, Li made life difficult for herself. Clawing her way back into her service game to hold for 5-5, by contrast, Safarova zipped through her service game to lead by a set and 6-5, and force Li Na to serve to stay in the match again.

Two errors. 0-30. Two winners 30-30. And then a Safarova forehand return winner off a second serve, a step out of the way and then step into it shot, the sort that Sam Stosur likes to play. Match point.

Which brings us full circle. "Everybody is having a heart attack," a Chinese tennis fan tweeted.

But then the luck shifted. Safarova's backhand down the line missed by an inch and Li thundered through the next 11 points, winning nine of them, to send the match into a third set.

"I think the five centimeters save my tournament.  If she hit in, I think, whole team on the way to the airport," Li said smiling.  

"It was tough conditions, tough opponent. I was sometimes thinking too much. So I was like, OK, just focus here to see what happen."

A minor wobble as she was broken in the opening game aside, the result more of the 10-minute pause for heat rather than any momentum shift, the rest of the match was as opposite as the weather in New York to the weather in Melbourne.

Hitting just six unforced errors in that final set, compared to the 18 and 26 of the first and second sets, Li wrapped up her own survival mission 1-6, 7-6(2), 6-3 in two hours and 37 minutes.

“At least I win the match, so still in the tournament," she said. "I was really happy the way is fight on the court from first point until the last point.

The heat, as it has been for everyone, was undoubtedly part of Li's malaise. At one point she was covering her head with her ice towel, patting her cheeks and nose in a desperate attempt to cool down.

And she was so bold as to ask to conduct her post-match interview in the shade rather than sun.

"After second set, lucky thing is we have 10‑minute break.  I think that save a little bit energy.  Otherwise, if we continue, is more mentally game on the court," Li said.

"Especially today end of the second set I was feeling like real, real tired."

She also admitted that she took time to adapt to the change of style and pace of 26-year-old Safarova from that of sweet 16-year-olds Ana Konjuh and Belinda Bencic, her first and second round opponents.

"Yeah, totally different because she's a lefty.  Also the serve also is different," Li said. "Every time I was play Lucie, always tough, because she was pretty good hitter also."

But the match does give pause for thought as to Li's potential at this event. Against another player, she would not have been allowed to burrow her way back in. She would have been reading about her unforced error count in the locker room instead.

Next up is Ekaterina Makarova, another left-hander, who has a prodigious record on these courts. That said, surviving makes us stronger.

"At least today I was play against a lefty so I can used to little bit serve because lefty is totally different than right hand," Li said.

"At least we can play cool day and then fight on the court."

Don't count her out yet.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015
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