The key to winning grand slam tennis tournaments is quite simple according to Li Na: just keep standing. And as we head towards the business end of the Australian Open, Li is not just standing – she is walking tall, as tall as her 172cm frame will allow.
From being on the verge of defeat against Lucie Safarova in the third round, Li has gone from strength to strength, and now there seems to be no stopping her. She saved a match point that day, and the confidence that gave her has carried her on and through to the semi-finals for the loss of just six games.
In Tuesday’s quarterfinal, she dismissed Flavia Pennetta 6-2 6-2 in an impressive, efficient and clinical display of accuracy and court craft. Not only that, but she stayed on her feet throughout and that, as we now know, is key.
Li is attempting to reach her third final at Rod Laver Arena and loves it here in Australia although, after last year’s final, it is hard to see why. Melbourne is a fine city and the crowds have taken Li to their hearts, but she must have miserable memories of playing here. It was bad enough that she fell and twisted her ankle in the second set of last year’s final against Victoria Azarenka but to add insult to injury, she fell again in the third, cracking her head on the cement court and almost knocking herself out. No matter; the practical and no-nonsense Li just got on with the job that day, and is back again to see if she can go one step further this year.
Getting to within touching distance of the final was simplicity itself as Li barely put a foot wrong on Tuesday. She won almost twice as many points as her opponent, a clear indication that she was in charge pretty much from first ball till last. The only blot on her copy book was dropping serve as she went to close out the first set. Not that it made any difference, mind you: she was 5-0 up at the time and never in any danger of being pushed. The way Li is playing at the moment, it is hard to see anyone pushing her very far.
“I got a lot of confidence because of being match point down against Safarova,” Li said. “Finally I came back to win that match, and so of course I got a lot of confidence and belief in myself.”
Li is one of the characters of the women’s tour. A little older than the rest – she will be 32 next month – she is comfortable in her own skin and not afraid to say what she thinks. And she usually says it to her long-suffering husband, Jiang Shan, too. In the old days, he used to coach his missus but these days, he stays out of the firing line and lets Carlos Rodriguez take care of the technical stuff. He still hits with his wife, though, and she gives him both barrels when he makes a mistake.
“Yesterday I was so pissed at him,” Li said, sounding as if she was still annoyed. “He hit every ball very hard or very high, never in the middle. I said to him: do you know what normal is? He said: I am not normal people!”
When it comes to tennis, Li seems fonder of her racquets than she is of her husband. No matter how frustrated she gets on court – and she is a feisty woman, is Li – she never smashes her beloved bats.
“My racquet is my friend,” she said. “She is with me all the time and I feel I have to be nice to her and then she will be nice to me.”
This did not sound like the pragmatic Li, the lass who almost gave herself concussion 12 months ago and just shook it off to complete the final. Or the woman who keeps her hubby firmly in his place (and a husband’s place is always wrong, as any woman will tell you). Surely Li does not have a warm, fluffy side to her? Er, no. When asked if she had names for her racquets, she looked at Rennae Stubbs as if she was mad.
“I have eight racquets,” she said she said in special tone grown-ups use with small children. “If you want I call them Li Na One, Li Na Two until Li Na Eight.” And then Li Na Original backed away and headed for the safety of the locker room – walking tall and still resolutely upright.