Melbourne, Australia: It still does not look quite right to see Carlos Rodriguez working for anyone but Justine Henin as he sits in the players box wearing his poker face and a ball cap.
For years, Rodriguez was Henin's mentor and tactician in chief, a diminutive, Argentine-born coach who systematically helped the sensitive Henin overcome her fears and limitations to become the world's No. 1 player and a multiple Grand Slam champion.
But Rodriguez is back at the heart of the women's game, and he was in the stands again on a steamy Thursday afternoon observing every nuance as his new pupil, Li Na, played one of the best big matches of her career to defeat Maria Sharapova, 6-2, 6-2 to reach the Australian Open final.That the sixth-seeded Li could beat the second-seeded Sharapova was no big surprise. One of China's biggest sports stars, Li is one of the game's true quality players and was a finalist here in 2011, but that she could beat Sharapova so easily was definitely a surprise.
Sharapova had lost just nine games in five matches heading into the semifinal. Mischievous number crunchers were calculating her earnings per minute of court time: well over $1,000.
But Li, who shares the same agent (Max Eisenbud), will end up with the bigger paycheck after feasting on Sharapova's second serve and winning a clear majority of their physical baseline rallies.
Asked if her lack of a major test in the earlier rounds might have played a role in her minor-key performance Thursday, Sharapova demurred.
"I can't think of it that way; I certainly can't use that as an excuse," she said. 'When I go into any match, I'm trying to win with the best scoreline I can. That's my goal.
"Today I felt like I had my fair share of opportunities," she said. "It's not like they weren't there. I just couldn't take them today."
Sharapova's average second-serve speed was a very respectable 93 mph but she won just 6 of 24 points with it as Li broke her serve seven times in all. She was also particularly effective in stretching the 6-foot-2 Sharapova wide to her forehand with sliced serves and well-struck crosscourt forehands of her own. Sharapova's forehand, when she is on balance, is a major weapon but is less effective on the run.
"She was aggressive," Sharapova said. "She was taking the first ball and doing something with it, and when I was trying to, I was making too many unforced errors."
Sharapova still holds an 8-5 record over Li and won all three of their matches in 2012 when Li struggled to produce an encore to her remarkable 2011 season, when she reached the final at the Australian Open and then became the first Chinese player to win a Grand Slam singles title at the French Open.
But she appears to be gathering momentum anew in 2013, six months after she and her husband, Jiang Shan, made the mutual decision to demote Jiang from coach back to husband and hire Rodriguez.
He has been pushing Li particularly hard in physical training, and Li, who likes a joke, turned toward Rodriguez and the rest of her team during her post-match interview and gave a new directive.
"You don't need to push me anymore," she said. "I will push me."
Rodriguez knows Sharapova's game very well and also knows what it takes to beat her. Henin, who retired in 2011 because of an elbow problem, was 7-3 during her career against the much taller Sharapova.
And although Li and Henin are different players - Henin's signature shot was a one-handed backhand - they share a certain innate vulnerability. Li has struggled with her on-court composure over the years and lost memorably but painfully at last year's Australian Open in the fourth round to Kim Clijsters after holding four match points and a 6-2 lead in the second-set tiebreaker.
But Li held on Thursday, closing out the match on her second match point, and she has yet to drop a set in this tournament despite a difficult draw that included Julia Goerges in the fourth round, the fourth-seeded Agnieszka Radwanska in the quarterfinals and now Sharapova, who was in the hunt for the No. 1 ranking.
Her return to the final should spark greater interest in China than in Melbourne, where the women's semifinals Thursday were not sold out and where there are still tickets available for Saturday's women's final (the later men's rounds have long been sold out).
Her success here was also the latest coup for veteran players. Serena Williams won two Grand Slam singles titles and the Olympic gold medal last year at age 30. Li is 30 herself, something that the retired player turned Australian television presenter Rennae Stubbs likes to tease her about.
But as Sharapova rediscovered, Li has a dangerous return of serve and when Stubbs made mention of Li's age in the post-match interview, Li smiled.
"You know," Li said, "The truth is I'm younger than you."
© 2013, The New York Times News Service
Story first published on: Thursday, 24 January 2013 10:49 IST