Sports / Tennis

Li Na coach believes she will make to top three

By Tang Zhe (China Daily) Updated: 2012-10-25 22:27

While some of Li Na's most ardent fans believe the 30-year-old's retirement from the world's tennis courts is inching closer and closer, her coach, Carlos Rodriguez, believes the Chinese star still has enough improvement left in her to make the world's top three.

Li — who lost her first match of round-robin play on Wednesday at the WTA Championships — had her most phenomenal season in 2011, reaching her first Grand Slam final at the Australian Open and then winning her first major title at Roland Garros to become the first Asian to claim that honor.

However, Li fell out of form after the French Open and crashed in the first round of the US Open and her home China Open. She also tumbled out of the top 10 after a fourth-round defeat at Roland Garros this year. Li later admitted the Chinese public's enormous expectations had placed her under increased pressure.

After a second-round exit at Wimbledon this year and first-round elimination at the London Olympics, Li hired Rodriguez, the coach of former world No 1 and seven-time major winner Justine Henin, to be her mentor.

She soon bounced back to form by winning in Cincinnati in August, under the guidance of the Argentine coach, and now says the partnership has refreshed her and made her more organized.

She also added that she has no thoughts of retiring and wants to play for another two or three years.

The coach is even more ambitious than her, saying there are still a lot of areas in which Li can improve and that she should be able to cruise into the world's top three.

"I think for me, honestly, she can give 20 to 25 percent more," Rodriguez said during the WTA Championships in Istanbul. "Maybe people don't know Li Na too much, but from coaching her very closely, I see there are many things that she can do (better).

"She can improve in different areas to really reach another level. When I started to see her a little bit more and analyze her over the past two months, I found in every part of her performance — recovery, nutrition, physical training, emotional management, technical and tactical things on the court — she has a little bit of room to improve. It's quite a global thing, and when you take a little bit from those six elements, you can make quite an improvement … that's why it's so exciting."

Rodriguez brought the tennis academy he organized with Henin to China two years ago. He then settled his family in Beijing, which enables him to share enough time with Li, who also lives in the capital, while taking care of his academy and family.

The coach has placed emphasis on the mental side of the game for the Chinese players under his tutelage.

"I think it's not that difficult as long as you tell the player how to build self-confidence," he said. "At the end of the day, all the players are mentally strong, otherwise, they wouldn't be where they are."

Setting specific goals and working on the six facets of the game he mentioned could be a way for Li to handle the mental side of the game, Rodriguez told China Daily.

"What I mean is stop thinking about winning the Grand Slams or being No 1 in the world next year. Put all of that concentration and energy into how you want to reach those six points that you need to improve," he said. "This gives you a lot of confidence in yourself, and it's easier for you to control yourself and manage your emotions when you come to the court.

"There are many times when a player is thinking about a goal, but forgets where they are and what they have to do to reach their goal. The time between now and next season is very important. It's when you can put the player in the situation, help her to build new habits, and prepare herself in the same way all the time. It's not easy, but it's what Li Na needs."

The coach has also explained to Li how to handle the public's expectations.

"As a public person, she has to accept both sides of the coin. Take the whole package or nothing," he said. "People identify themselves with her. She represents a lot of good things … people say, ‘I would like to be her' and dream about it.

"Nobody pushed her to be a national hero, but when she reached that position she should have been ready to take on that responsibility because it's part of the job and her job is not just to hit balls."

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