MELBOURNE – Australian Open champion Li Na paid tribute to her coach Carlos Rodriguez after she came through a slump and even considered retirement before winning her second Grand Slam title.
Li hired Rodriguez, the former mentor of multiple Grand Slam champion Justine Henin, in mid-2012 after conflicts with her previous coach — husband Jiang Shan.
The Chinese star has credited him with saving her marriage and helping resurrect her game after she lost her way following her 2011 French Open victory, when the distractions of sponsors and media affected her form.
He has also been a steadying influence on the now composed 31-year-old, who used to struggle to control her emotions on court.
Importantly, the Argentinian, who helped steer Henin to world number one, has instilled a self-belief that was lacking.
“You know, when like last year I said I want to be top three, nobody believed me,” Li said. “At the beginning of this year I said I want to win another Grand Slam title. Nobody believed.
“More important is I believed, he believed, my team believed.”
As well as being a steadying influence, Rodriguez helped save Li from retiring last June after she became disillusioned with media criticism, convincing her it was worth playing on.
She said it was tough adapting to his style in the beginning, but she has no regrets about hiring him.
“When I started working with him, I realized he was more cool. He’s not stressful. So I felt I need a coach like him,” she said.
“Every day he would say ‘Believe in yourself, believe in yourself.’ But if I was really doing something wrong, he would say ‘This is wrong, you have to change.’
“But the most important thing is, working with him for one-and-a-half, two years, he didn’t tell me what to do. He would say, ‘You have to play yourself. You have to know yourself what you should do.'”
After battling past Dominika Cibulkova to win the Australian title on Saturday evening, Li said it was more satisfying than her Grand Slam breakthrough at the French Open because of the tough preparations that went into it.
She said she is also better placed to deal with the pressures and demands that come with winning one of the majors, with the experienced Rodriguez by her side.
“When I won the French Open, nobody told me what I should do and also I didn’t have any experience. I didn’t know how much my life would change but I think now it’s different,” she said.
“This is the second one, it’s not the first one. I think Carlos has a lot of experience, for sure. He will give me some information.”
Rodriguez said he had also noticed a big change in Li, aside from her new, more aggressive style of play.
“She’s more stable,” Rodriguez told the Herald Sun ahead of Saturday’s final. “You still have this amazing beginning of matches but she doesn’t fall that deep down.
“She’ll support much better the pressure and have less worries. Her adaptability is much better and endurance, emotional endurance, to support the stress.”
This new composure was apparent on Saturday when she came through an error-strewn first set and problems with her racquet to beat Cibulkova 7-6 (7/3), 6-0.