Following her semi-final victory over Maria Sharapova, it was mentioned to Li Na that her husband Jiang Shan’s English name is “Dennis.”
Asked what her English name should be, Li, in her fractured but functional English, replied, “I think my name is so short I even didn’t need an English name.”
Li, from Wuhan, China, is a non-stop source of homespun humour in her post-match interviews in Rod Laver Arena as well as with reporters in the media centre. She’s so good she has a repertoire of enough bon mots to someday fill her own version of former Chinese leader Mao Tse-Tung’s ‘Little Red Book.’
Her winsome personality has created something of a mis-match for her final against Victoria Azarenka in Rod Laver Arena on Saturday night. Li has endeared herself to Aussie Open crowds and will be the overwhelming fan favourite against Azarenka, who alienated many with her injury-related histrionics in Thursday’s semi-final against Sloane Stephens.
But there’s no debating that the world No. 1 is a fine player with a strong-willed, competitive spirit. As long as she is over the knee, rib, back and breathing issues that troubled her in the semi-finals, she will present many challenges for Li in the final.
Azarenka, 23, leads their head-to-head 5-4, and has won all four meetings played over the past 15 months. But Li, 30, did beat her in their previous Australian Open match – 6-3, 6-3 – in the 2011 fourth round.
The strength of Azarenka’s game is a blistering return of serve, and it will be a key to her success Saturday night. If it’s on, Li’s sometimes vulnerable second serve will be worked over.
Carlos Rodriguez, former longtime coach/Svengali of Justine Henin, has developed a good working relationship with Li in their six months together. He says he’s pleased Azarenka advanced over Stephens on Thursday because he thinks the Belarussian plays a lot like Sharapova did in Li’s last match, and because he believes the pressure is squarely on the defending champion.
Rodriguez wants the 5-foot-7 Li to play psychologically “big” against the 6-foot Azarenka, just as he used to admonish the 5-foot-6 Henin to step up and play “big” when she faced six-footers like Venus Williams and Lindsay Davenport.
Li, with her badminton background, is a terrific athlete with powerful ground strokes, especially a natural two-handed backhand that she lasers with impressive pace and precision.
Having won the 2011 French Open and played in the Australian Open final earlier that same year – losing 3-6, 6-3, 6-3 to Kim Clijsters – Li claims she will be better prepared this time for the championship match of what is billed as the Grand Slam of Asia/Pacific.
She playfully attempts to downplay the effect her being in the final will have on the 1.3 billion inhabitants in her homeland. “I think the second time,” Li said Thursday, “they think ‘oh she win again. She in final again.’ Maybe not so interesting anymore.”
When the first fuzzy yellow ball hits the Plexicushion court on Australia Day Saturday night, there will be a contrast in the men supporting the contenders for this year’s title. In one courtside box will be Li’s straight-laced “Dennis,” Jiang Shan. In the other will likely be Azarenka’s biggest Aussie Open booster, the ‘out-there’ American singer/rapper Redfoo and his unruly Afro hair.
Whichever player wins the title, Li will likely have the most amusing last word, as she did in her media conference on Thursday when pressed about Jo-Wilfried Tsonga’s remarks that women’s tennis is significantly affected by their hormones.
“Sorry about that,” Li said declining to comment. “Now, I’m only interesting about tennis. Maybe when I retire I’m thinking about the hormones one day.”
TOM’S INTREPID TIP:
Li def. Azarenka in three: In a world of good Karma, Li’s breezy approach to the tournament wins out over all that Azarenka angst.