Forget your forehands and backhand; ignore your string tensions and grips – who needs them? When it comes to winning tennis matches, all that technical, physical stuff is all very well but it’s what goes on between the ears that counts.
Most players first picked up a racquet when they were still in nappies and as for training, practise and nutrition, the new techniques, crazes and fads spread around the locker room like wildfire (today’s gluten-free prophets were all carb-loading pasta-heads just a year or so ago). Everyone knows all there is to know about keeping fit and hitting tennis balls; it is when to hit them and why that makes the difference.
Li Na can hit a ball with the best of them and in 2011 she won the French Open. But for all that success, she has never managed to make winning a habit. Somewhere in her deepest psyche, there is a flaw, a fissure that allows the doubt to creep in. Just when she is about to hit the winning shot, a wee voice whispers: “Off you go, girl; just make sure you don’t miss”. And then she misses.
It was that weakness that caused her to miss four match points in the fourth round against Kim Clijsters last year here at Melbourne Park. That loss left her in tears but her second round loss at Wimbledon and her first round loss at the Olympics a few months later left her in no doubt – she needed a new coach. She needed one fast.
Her agents, IMG, suggested Carlos Rodriguez and the moment Li heard the name, she knew he was the perfect partner. It was Rodriguez who took the shy and fragile Justine Henin and turned her into Belgium’s pocket dynamo, the unstoppable force at Roland Garros and a world No.1. And to think, when Henin and Clijsters first emerged as promising young talents, it was Clijsters who was tipped for greatness and Henin who was regarded as the choker. Life’s funny like that.
Not only was Rodriguez the ideal man to teach Li the art of thinking tough on court, he was already based in China and ran a tennis academy in the suburbs of Beijing. So, her husband Jiang Shan, was demoted from coach to logistical duties (booking courts, being a hitting partner and being the butt of Li’s jokes) and Rodriguez was given free rein to change whatever was necessary to turn Li into a serial winner.
So far, the partnership is working a treat. Li is safely through to the fourth round after a 6-4 6-1 clobbering of Sorana Cirstea and now faces Julia Goerges for a shot at the quarterfinals. After a bit of cat and mouse in the first set, Li took charge in the second and Cirstea could only stand and watch as the No.6 seed ran away with the match. Not that Li seemed overly fussed by her performance.
“At least I’m still in the tournament, so nothing to worry about,” she said. Then again, Li has always told it like it is. She doesn’t call a spade a spade, she calls it a bloody shovel.
And when it comes to being blunt, she pointed out she is getting a little tired of answering questions about her new coach. Who is the Grand Slam champion here, after all? Every time a microphone appears in front of her, a fawning reporter mentions Rodriguez in reverential tones and expects Li to gush accordingly. Enough is enough, already.
“After he start teaching me, I’m always asked about him in press conferences,” she said with a touch of grumpiness in her tone. “So, Carlos – you stay here and answer some questions.” But Carlos was nowhere to be seen. “He gone,” Li harrumphed as she was left alone to explain what a wonderful coach and general good egg Carlos was.
"He's not only a teacher about tennis,” she said. “It's not only about technique. He's also about making my mind more stronger on the court. I feel more relaxed working with him. He never gives me pressure. He says, 'You never know what will happen on the tennis court, so just try to win the first round. If you can't win the first round, nothing will happen after’.”
But things are happening for Li and as Rodriguez has shown her – if she can get her head straight, her tennis will follow.