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Li Na's tennis game is on track, her personality pleasingly off-kilter

ColumnSportsTennisLi NaWimbledon ChampionshipsFrench OpenAustralian Open
Li Na beats Wimbledon foe Yvonne Meusburger, then displays winning personality
Li Na is flourishing under guidance of coach Carlos Rodriguez
China's Li Na has won a French Open, Australian Open, seems poised for more

In the midst of a pro tennis world chock-full of players with overwhelming athletic skills and underwhelming personalities, there is Li Na.

She is a beacon in the fog, a candle in a mine shaft.

She is also a pretty good tennis player who is ranked No. 2 and advanced routinely Wednesday to the third round at Wimbledon. She beat Yvonne Meusburger of Austria in a nice 6-2, 6-2 workout, and the expectations of more big things to come from her here were enhanced.

And why not?

She has won two major titles, the 2011 French Open and this year's Australian Open, and seems poised for more. Even though she is 32, she appears to be flourishing both physically and mentally under the guidance of her coach of the last two years, Carlos Rodriguez.

He was the brain trust behind the now retired Justine Henin and her seven major titles.

Wednesday, as Rodriguez dashed from Li's match to scout her next opponent, Barbora Zahlavova Strycova of the Czech Republic, it was clear that his well-known attention to detail as well as his well-known reputation as a firm taskmaster are a major part of Team Li Na.

"The tactics were to start the ball [the rally] in the middle of the court," he said. "She was supposed to be focused on that, and she was … most of the time. She is No. 2 in the world, so I expect she can stay with correct tactics for an entire match. Of course, sometimes she doesn't."

If that makes Li unpredictable, thank goodness. The drone of the tour and its all too often bland participants makes somebody who regularly rejects the norm to be of great appeal.

After her win Wednesday, she was asked whether she liked grass courts or clay courts better.

"Hard courts," she said.

She was asked if she was concerned about the number of unforced errors she made in her match.

"But I had a lot of winners too, right?"

This news conference was just a light once-over of Li. There are always quips, even though she is presenting them in a language very different from hers, and to an audience that is very different from herself. What she says is never formatted by habit or sanitized by some agent. Who she is is what you get. Always.

Remember, this is a Chinese woman who has a tattoo. On her chest. You don't have to wonder how that plays in the Communist Politburo.

This is a woman who, years ago, split from the Chinese tennis federation, which was taking out as much as 65% of her winnings, and went on her own. Some $15 million later, that makes her look like Warren Buffett.

The world beyond China probably began to take notice of this wonderfully quirky woman after her on-court interview that followed her victory in the 2011 Australian semifinals. As we hip columnists are fond of saying, it went viral on YouTube.

She was asked how she felt going into the match, and said she didn't get much sleep because "my husband slept like …" (she made the classic snoring noise). The interviewer followed up surprisingly well, asking, since she was not well rested, what motivated her in the match. "Prize money," she said.

Then, this year after her Aussie title, she did it again.

Speaking to the crowd in the victory ceremony, she looked at her team box, thanked them all for their support and said to her husband, "Thanks for everything, for just traveling around with me to be my hitting partner. Fix the drinks. Fix the racket. You do a lot of jobs. So thanks a lot. You are a nice guy. Also, you are lucky to find me."

The crowd in Rod Laver Stadium roared. Laughing the hardest was her husband.

His name is Jiang Shan, a former player with pro tour aspirations of his own. He was her main coach for most of her career until Rodriguez took over.

Rodriguez called the team "a happy group. … We have fun, laugh a lot."

When her husband coached her, Li said she heard people talking about their being divorced. She said that was because "we were always shouting at each other."

One newspaper headlined a story about them: "Husband, Coach, Punching Bag."

Now, Rodriguez mediates.

"I say to her husband," Rodriguez said Wednesday, "to not only tell her the things she did wrong, but the things she did right."

As she heads toward later rounds at Wimbledon and the higher profile that comes with that, the Li Na-isms will be recycled, a worthy endeavor at any time:

• Li, on asking her mother to come to watch her play: "She says no. I have my life."

• On when she finally got her mother to come to an exhibition match and she called her afterward to ask what she thought: "Match OK. I'm on my way home now."

• On male Chinese tennis players: "I think they are strong in body, not strong in mind."

• On being unimpressed when called the most popular athlete in China more popular than Yao Ming: "He's retired."

• On the progression from dating to marriage: "Before we were married, I would say to him, 'I'm going shopping,' and he would say, 'OK.' Now, I say I am going shopping and he says, 'Why are you always going shopping?'"

• Her mandate about his snoring: "You put on more weight, you're divorced."

• And her answer to the female flight attendant who said to her, on the trip home after one of her big wins, "Hey, that guy is Li Na's husband": "Yeah, he looks like him. A lot of people say that."

So, if you are looking for a rooting interest as Wimbledon progresses, consider Li Na. Remember, the more she wins, the more she gets to talk.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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