This post first appeared at Tennis Grandstand.
Li Na? Or Na Li?
The western world’s difficulty with the naming order of the former Roland Garros winner is sometimes the least of her problems. She (basically) carries the burden of an entire nation, becoming the first Asian woman to win a major title in singles. She graced the cover of TIME Magazine, and was named by the publication as one of the 100 most influential people in the world this year. Recently called “the most important player of the decade” by WTA CEO Stacey Allaster, Li’s success has been instrumental in the rise of tennis in the Asia/Pacific region, as well as spearheading the concerted marketing efforts of the WTA in the area.
Nothing in Li’s career had marked her as a particularly strong clay court prior to her run to the Roland Garros title in 2011. She had previous contested just four French Opens, reaching three third rounds and one fourth round. Clay so often rewards patience, and this is a virtue that Li does not always possess. When Li is having a good day, she puts on a show. she’s capable of blowing anyone on the WTA off the court and going toe-to-toe with the game’s biggest hitters. The surface is irrelevant, as she can hit through any conditions. When she’s off, however, the match becomes more of a struggle against herself than any opponent.
After reaching the final in Stuttgart and losing a decent match to Maria Sharapova, Li struggled to adapt to the conditions in Madrid when facing lucky loser Madison Keys in the opening round; while no excuse, Li was no doubt befuddled by the last-minute withdrawal of Tamira Paszek, and received little to no advanced warning that she’d be playing Keys. In a 6-3, 6-2 defeat, Li amassed a total of 34 unforced errors, while balancing that out with just eight winners.
After playing one of the most dramatic matches of the 2012 season with Maria Sharapova in the finals at the Foro Italico last year, Li no doubt returned to Rome in 2013 looking to avenge some of the bad memories from a season ago. Li brushed aside countrywoman Zheng Jie in her opening match, delivering a clinical performance against a player she had previously struggled against; prior to their second round match, Zheng had won four of five previous meetings.
On the other side of the net in Rome on Thursday was Jelena Jankovic, a woman who has won six titles on clay in her career; this haul includes back-to-back titles in Rome at the height of her career in 2007 and 2008. The match was perhaps a microcosm of Li’s career; she was strikingly brilliant for a point or two, but largely flat, wild and unimpressive. Jankovic triumphed by a 7-6(2), 7-5 scoreline but it was perhaps Li’s stat line that was the most shocking of all: 31 winners and 62 unforced errors.
Statistics so rarely tell the real story regarding the dynamics of a tennis match, but tend to be incredibly accurate when Li steps on court. What was Keys’ tally in Madrid? Seven winners, 11 unforced errors. Jankovic’s was no better in Rome, as the Serbian needed just 16 winners (while making 29 errors of her own) to come out the victor. When Li is playing well, she forces her opposition to outplay her; when she’s not, however, they are only required to be just shy of ordinary.
While she has shown that she is able to shine on the biggest stages multiple times, there have been just as many or more when she has failed to rise to the occasion. At the age of 31, Li isn’t getting any younger. Erratic performances have categorized her less-than-traditional road to the top, and she can no longer afford consistently disappointing letdowns like in Madrid and Rome. A Jekyll-and-Hyde performer on court, it’s almost as if she still doesn’t know what kind of player she can be.
(For the record, it’s Li Na. We can at least be sure of that.)
flopping hard losing to Daniela Hantuchova in the first round at the Olympics, Li Na announced that she would hire Carlos Rodriguez, Justine Henin’s long time coach, on a trial basis beginning August 16th for the remainder of the 2012 season. He will also travel full time with her.
This is not Rodriguez’s first foray into coaching since Henin retired. When she retired the first time, he worked with Anna Chakvetadze for a few months before the two part ways. He said she didn’t want to work hard enough. He’s not going to be too happy with Li then.
Li, to her credit, has had no shortage of coaching experiments over the past few seasons. First, Thomas Hogstedt left her to coach Maria Sharapova in early 2011. How did Li respond? She defeated Sharapova, and Hogstedt, in the semifinals of Roland Garros on her way to the title under the tutelage of Michael Mortensen, who she fired in late 2011. Li said she didn’t like his ‘mild and gentle’ approach; she wanted someone tougher.
The, uh, interesting dynamic between Li and her sometimes coach, always husband Jiang Shan never failed to amaze in its hilarity. She called him out for snoring in front of thousands at the Australian Open, and is apparently not very good with money. Observe.
Considering his coaching relationship with Henin was, uh, one of ‘interdependence,’ I fail to see how this can be anything but a very large, very comedic failure. First of all, she’s also not one who likes to be told what to do.
Wonder how she feels about a guy from Argentina then?
Henin never made any career decisions without consulting Rodriguez first. Henin shared an emotional bond with Carlos since he was with her from such a young age, and frankly, it became much like a father-daughter relationship. Having one coach for such an extended period means the player doesn’t necessarily need tactical or technical strategy, but only moral support. Li’s strong-willed, Type A personality will clash with Rodriguez’s style. I for one, cannot wait until she calls him out for his first
legal WTA on-court coaching consult.
One of Wimbledon’s many glorious traditions is the annual WTA players’ party, which takes place on the Thursday before the tournament begins. There is no tennis to tear apart until Sunday, so we can slam the outfits instead! Presenting: Your Obligatory WTA Fashion Police Blog Post!
The defending champion continues to shine when given the chance. After being thrust into the public eye following her Wimbledon win in 2011, the soft-spoken Czech has embraced her outer sparkle off the court.
As we know, the only reason why Jelena even bothers to play tennis these days is for extra spending money, clothes and parties. She can’t even do that right anymore.
Venus and Serena Williams
Venus and Serena’s fashion choices over the past decade have sometimes wowed us, and other times, have left us scratching our heads. Both opted for classic options, but the jury’s still out on the hair.
Maria Sharapova doing what Maria Sharapova does with commanding presence as always. She wouldn’t look out of place on a Hollywood red carpet. Bonus points for the shoes.
— kutzna irawan (@tkuzna) June 22, 2012
Azarenka, who also opts for casual looks at these events more often than not
(yes, that debacle at Indian Wells excluded), sports a new layered hairdo to go with her trusty black leggings.
If you’re experiencing deja vu, don’t fret! I am too. Wozniacki sported a similar off the shoulder black dress and up-do at last year’s players’ party. Stella, get the girl another look, stat.
Take me to your leader. China’s first Grand Slam champion rocks the makeup and hair as always, but I do wonder if the dress picks up radio signals. Or at one time sustained alien life.
Ivanovic, unlike her compatriot Jankovic, never fails to disappoint. Although this picture does. The only negative of this dress was the fringed monstrosity on the bottom that I’ve spared you from seeing. Thank me later.
Radwanska rocking a simple, black floor length gown. Although, if I were her, I’d lose the number of Kuznetsova’s hair dresser.
The Russian knocks it out of the park, and the dress really brings out her eyes. My winner for sure.