Li Na Finds Focus Through Fitness

By Jane Voigt

January 24, 2013 -- Maria Sharapova steam-rolled opponents in the first six rounds and lost 9 games total … a record for the tournament. Li Na, though, handily defeated the Russian in the semifinals, 62 62, crushing her dreams of a second Australian Open. 

How does this happen to a player as good as Maria Sharapova who obviously had revved up her game to a supersonic level? And especially against the Chinese woman who many pundits thought was, well, washed up ... a disappointment.

The usual answers do apply. And the simplest is – Li Na played better. 

She read Sharapova’s game better, moved the six-two two-seed from side to side, and hit behind her as she scrambled after the ball. This tactic worked like a charm time after time, frustrating Sharapova to no end.

"She was certainly much more aggressive that I was, dictating the play," Sharapova told the press. "I was always on the defense."

The heat probably played into the defeat, too. On court temperatures were 106 degrees. Players can feel the court through their shoes, but Sharapova would have none of that.

"Doesn't matter," Sharapova said emphatically. "It was what it was. I grew up in Florida and still train there. I'm used to warm conditions."

So here’s the real reason why Li Na won … improved fitness. 

She hired Carlos Rodriguez after her poor performance last year at Wimbledon and the London Olympics. Beforehand her husband, Jiang Shan, coached her. We all remember her on-court outbursts aimed toward him, sitting helplessly in their player box. Well, that's over.

Carlos Rodriguez's resume is impressive, having coached Justine Henin to seven major titles. 

Everything was in order with the newly formed relationship until she started training the Rodriguez way: six-hour workouts. 

"'After three days, I was dying,'" Li Na told The Independent. "'Because my husband didn't come with me to Beijing [where Rodriguez has a training facility] I called him and said: Carlos is crazy.'"

Her husband joined her in Beijing, sitting in on a session in disbelief. "'Are you finished?'" he asked. She said she was only half-way finished. "'I'm tired," he replied. 

It’s no secret that players are now spending more time in the gym than on the practice court. To have a chance at the ball, they have to get to the ball. Again, no secret. The game is fast. Rallies can extend well beyond 20 shots. They simply have to improve their fitness to survive. 

When fitness improves, tennis games improve. There is a direct link. In this case, Li Na has become mentally tougher because her body and mind have become a fine-tuned system. 

In his book The New Toughness Training for Sports, Dr. Jim Loehr, the world-renowned performance psychologist, defined mental toughness as, "the ability to consistently perform towards the upper range of your talent and skill regardless of competitive circumstances." 

Loehr has worked closely with many professional athletes, including tennis legends Jimmy Connors and Monica Seles. 

The six-hour workouts have opened the door for Li Na to show off her new mental toughness and the best tennis she has played for many, many years.

Because of the conditioning and mental acuity Li Na timed the ball better against Sharapova, too, syphoning seconds away from her powerful and deadly connections with the balls.  

Even with Sharapova’s returns, which are one of the best on the women’s side, Li Na got under them and hit with conviction and authority. Once she changed the direction of the ball off a Sharapova return that landed down the line in a snap, a tough technical coup. 

"I was working very hard in winter training with Carlos," she said when asked how she stayed focused and kept her emotions in check during tight games. "This is the plan, what we should do for all the year, yeah."

Before her fitness improved Li Na was different on court. Not focused. Easily rattled. "I was angry or something. Start this year, I try to cool down on the court. Yeah, like Hollywood you know. You don't have to show opponent what you are thinking. A little bit like Hollywood, but not real." 

Li Na told the press that she is not worried about the final. Instead she is "hungry about [the] title."

"Yeah. I mean right now, what I should worry about?" she began. "I was working so hard in the winter training. I think now is everything just back to me. So I come to court, take the racquet, enjoy the tennis ... yeah."

Li Na plays Victoria Azarenka in the women's singles final. It's scheduled for Saturday, January 26, 7:30 p.m. Melbourne time, which is 3:30 a.m. eastern standard time. You might want to set your alarm. 

© Jane Voigt Tennis 2013