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Li Na mentally tougher under new coach as she prepares for Serena Williams

Li Na, of China, reacts after beating Ekaterina

Li Na, of China, reacts after beating Ekaterina Makarova, of Russia, during the quarterfinals of the 2013 U.S. Open. (Sept. 3, 2013) Credit: AP

Serena Williams' record against Li Na is pretty lopsided. She's won eight of the nine matches between them.

They meet for the 10th time Friday in the semifinals of the U.S. Open, the second match on Arthur Ashe Stadium after the Flavia Pennetta-Victoria Azarenka semi.

But the past isn't necessarily a prelude to another Williams victory because Li never has been a pushover for the world's No. 1 player. Williams has had to earn every win over the best player China has ever produced. She has been pushed to three sets three times, and her most recent win over Li, at Cincinnati in August, was a grinding 7-5, 7-5 slugfest.

And now Li is comfortably into her first full year with new coach Carlos Rodriguez, who was the driving force behind seven-time Grand Slam champion Justine Henin. Li has said that Rodriguez has toughened her physically and mentally, and although she has won only one title this season, she has been contending regularly.

Li has come to embrace the pressure cooker of the Open, and she's not letting on whether facing the sport's most fiercesome player Friday is daunting.

"If you only think about what opponent is doing, of course you already lose the match before you come to the court," Li said Wednesday when asked about facing Williams. "For tennis, you have to figure out what you have to do on the court, what you should do."

The 31-year-old Li decided last year that she needed to do something to revitalize her game and improve her marriage. Her husband, Jiang Shan, had coached her since she was a teenager and was her coach when she won the 2011 French Open, her one Grand Slam among seven career titles.

Rodriguez took over last August and Li won the second tournament under his championship eye two weeks later. In the offseason, she went through his strenuous workouts at the tennis academy he runs in Beijing. And, perhaps as important, he talked to her about life.

"I was feeling coach for me not only is about tennis coaching," she said of the decision to hire Rodriguez. "He teach me a lot off the court as well. You know, he tell me a lot [of his] experience, especially in press conference, communications with friends, with family, so many things.''

The decision to change wasn't easy, but for Li, it was necessary. She needed to take the chance to be better, to challenge the most dominant player, Serena Williams.

"I was feeling this year I tried to play same level starting at beginning of the year until now, so not like before," Li said. "Always have up, down, up, down . . . Change like half, half. After you change, maybe you lose everything . But on the other half, you can even [be] more better. Because I know if I didn't change, maybe I can stay, I don't know, like top 20. But I really want to push me to go to another level."

Which would be huge in China. When she beat Francesca Schiavone for the French Open title in 2011, it was reported that 116 million Chinese were watching, twice the population of France itself. Largely on the back of her popularity, there will be eight women's events in China in 2014.

"We think about the impact of Li Na, it has been quantum," Women's Tennis Association CEO Stacey Allaster said Thursday night. "We have 70 million fans engaged in social media and 40 percent of them are in China. That is the Li Na factor. We opened an office in Beijing in 2008 . . . If we look back from 2023, we will see more Li Nas playing. She has been enormous for us."


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