Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Li Na moves forward

Once there was a young woman who played tennis very well. She had a great gift, but she also had fear, and she tended to choke away big matches. Her coach told her she had to learn to come to the net much more frequently, but she she said she didn't want to because she was uncomfortable doing that. Her coach, however, was as stubborn as she was, and he finally had his way. She learned to come to the net, she overcame her fear, and then went on to win seven majors. She also gained recognition as the greatest clay court player of her generation.

That woman was Justine Henin, and that coach was Carlos Rodriguez. Now Rodriguez has in his charge another somewhat mentally fragile player who has long resisted coming to the net. Li Na, like Henin before her, is listening to her coach, and is showing more strength in her game than she has in a while. Of course, Li is 31 years old and an international celebrity, not an up-and-coming player like Henin was when she teamed up with Rodriguez. But she's very fit, and she undoubtedly knows that her one major title, the 2011 French Open, shouldn't be her only one.

Li, who retired once because she couldn't deal with the unfair treatment she received from her country's tennis federation, returned to the tour and revolutionized Chinese tennis. She went from having constant serious injuries to being extremely fit. It took her a long time to work things out, and then, after her triumph in Paris, she seemed to wilt. But the work she's being doing in the last several months appears to be paying off. Li stunned her U.S. Open opponents--up until today. Today, she had to deal with the tricky Russian, Ekaterina Makarova, who was the first player in New York to take a set off of the Chinese star.

Li's level went down today. So did Makarova's, but even with an opponent who isn't playing her best, Li has been known to make an exit from a big tournament. Today, though, Li used the final set to assert herself, and in doing so, she reached the semifinals of the U.S. Open for the first time. In defeating Makarova 6-4, 6-7, 6-2, Li booked a spot opposite world number 1 Serena Williams, who ran over Carla Suarez Navarro 6-0, 6-0. It was windy all day, but the wind really picked up this evening, and made it next to impossible for Suarez Navarro to get her breath and do so much as to win even one game.

Anything can happen, but something is telling me that the Williams-Li semifinal could turn out to be more of a show than the anticipated Williams-Azarenka final.

As for Azarenka, she had to play her round of 16 match today because of yesterday's rain delay. The 2nd seed was outsmarted and outplayed by Ana Ivanovic in the first set, but you know AnaIvo--she couldn't sustain that superior level. Still, watching the first set made me remember why Ivanovic won a major, and also just how dangerous she can be when her service toss is working and she's feeling good. That forehand!

Ivanovic's outstanding first set put Azarenka in a bad mood, and she stumbled and muttered and glared her way through the rest of the match. No matter--she won it, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4. In the next round, she'll get Daniela Hantuchova, and she better hope that Hantuchova doesn't play at the level she did yesterday.

Top seeds Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci won their third round match against Anabel Medina Garrigues and Flavia Pennetta, and 2nd seeds Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina beat Cara Blak and Marina Erakovic. In the other doubles match played today, 4th seeds Hsieh Su-Wei and Peng Shuai defeated Jelena Jankovic and Mirjana Lucic-Baroni.

In mixed doubles, Kristina Mladenovic and Daniel Nestor advanced to the semifinals.

I'll end the way I began, with a comment about Justine Henin. The Belgian star was so tightly wound that--when she didn't have a tournament to play or a day of training--to relax, she jumped out of planes. It seemed to work for her. I don't foresee Li drifting through the clouds, but just imagine that she might: Wouldn't you love to hear her talk about it?

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