Li Na has been keeping her mental approach to Australian Open 2014 extremely simple.
She’s not falling into the trap of looking ahead in the draw.
She’s not messing with her routines.
She’s staying in the moment on court.
And as that approach helped her win through to the semifinals following a rout of fellow veteran Flavia Pennetta on Tuesday, she simultaneously established herself as one of the red-hot favourites – if not the biggest favourite – for the title.
Such focus is no doubt a deliberate strategy, because she must know that this year represents possibly her best chance to claim a title that she covets so much, yet has narrowly failed on several occasions to capture.
It’s her fourth trip to the semifinals at Melbourne Park in the past five years. Twice she has made the final – in 2011 and 2013 – and both times, despite leading Kim Clijsters and Victoria Azarenka by a set in those deciders, she finished as the runner-up.
At almost 32 years of age, the Chinese trailblazer realistically only has a few years left to succeed at the Australian Open.
This year could very well be her time.
With Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova gone from the draw, she faces inexperienced 19-year-old Eugenie Bouchard for a place in the final, and, most likely, a rematch with second seed Azarenka.
But, as she’s done all fortnight, she’s taking it one step at a time.
“When I think about that (my draw opening up), I always lose next day,” she said.
“So for me, I just like, Okay, because she's not my next opponent, so I just say, You just follow what you should do.”
The “she” Li refers to is Williams, who was sensationally ousted from the fourth round by Ana Ivanovic at exactly the same time Li was conducting her press conference after an impressive victory over Ekaterina Makarova.
But even then, she refused to get caught up in draw projections and discussions about upsets and surprises, as the follow exchange showed.
“Are you conscious of what's going on on Rod Laver Arena at the moment with Serena? Have you been watching?”
“I think I watch like second set, like couple games. I finished cool-down and back to the locker room. And after, I didn't saw the match. But I know now she was down?”
“I think it's 5-2 in the third set.”
“No comment? You're not concentrating on that?”
“No, because they are not my next opponent.”
While that last answer was delivered with Li’s customary grin, it only served to mask her determination to keep her mind focused solely on her next immediate task.
That was Pennetta, whom she routed 6-2 6-2 in just one hour and seven minutes on Tuesday to book her place in the last four. And it was the same process she followed in her sapping third round match against Lucie Safarova, where, facing a match point in the second set, she calmly hit her way out of trouble and survived.
She’s a realist, is Li.
She knows everyone, including herself, is fallible. She knows that the pressures of Grand Slam tennis can lead to some topsy-turvy results, particularly when everyone gets a sniff of the prize in an open draw. And she knows that, like Serena and Maria, she’s been sensationally upset herself in the past when expected to win.
“I think everyone can lose the match, you know … for me, everyone can beat everyone in big tournament,” she said.
But by that logic, she can beat anyone, too. Including Azarenka, her biggest threat for the title and against whom many would like to see Li face in a rematch of their 2013 epic and what would be a blockbuster final.
But of course, let’s not forget Bouchard awaits first in the semifinals.
One step at a time.