|Re-molded Li Na gets into stride early
Li Na exited last year's Australian Open in tears after blowing four match points but the Chinese world number six is back to winning ways and eyeing a great chance to double her Grand Slam haul.
Li, invigorated by a new coaching partnership, heads into the season's first Grand Slam full of confidence after winning in Shenzhen, southern China, and going deep into the draw at this week's Sydney International, AFP’s Talek Harris reports.
“I really want to be top three or win another Grand Slam. Of course this is the goal, so the whole team is working so hard to try to achieve the goal,'' Li said.
It's a far cry from 12 months ago in Melbourne, when the then reigning French Open champion hit a roadblock in the form of a determined Kim Clijsters in the fourth round and let victory slip from her grasp four times.
Her post-match interview with Chinese media lasted just seconds before she went away in tears. But Clijsters, also her conqueror in the 2011 final in Melbourne, has now retired and a series of injuries could ease Li's progression.
World number one and defending champion Victoria Azarenka is battling a toe infection picked up during a pedicure, and Maria Sharapova withdrew from Brisbane with a collarbone problem.
Former Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova is groping for form and Samantha Stosur is making a slow return after surgery, leaving Li among a group of leading contenders headed by Serena Williams.
Li turns 31 next month but she has shown good signs under Justine Henin's ex-coach Carlos Rodriguez, beating Azarenka at an exhibition last month and winning her seventh career title in Shenzhen.
“Before we trained he told me, ‘If you want to go one more step or want to be even better, you have to change something’,’’ said Li.
“I agreed, because if I didn't change maybe I still could stay top 10, 20, but I couldn't go higher. In the beginning it was tough, because some [techniques] are still with me 10 years, 20 years already. It's very tough to change. But I was happy I could trust him to change some things in practice.’’
Last year's Grand Slams were forgettable for Li, who failed to go beyond the last 16 at any of the four major tournaments, including in her title defense at the French Open. But elsewhere she won her sixth career title in Cincinnati and reached three other finals, making it to the season-ending WTA Championships in Istanbul for the second straight season.
In Melbourne, former semi-finalist Zheng Jie and Peng Shuai and will also fly the flag for China, while their compatriot Wu Di will claim a slice of history by becoming the country's first male player to figure in a Grand Slam main draw.
The world number 185, who earned his wildcard through a special qualifying tournament in Nanjing, China, admitted some nerves at the prospect of making his Grand Slam debut in the full glare of publicity.
“I am proud to be the first, but of course at the same time, I am also feeling the pressure. But I will try to turn it into motivation. Every athlete has to face pressure and I am no different,'' he told the ATP website.