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Blissful marriage of love and tennis for China's Li

Li Na of China celebrates defeating Julia Goerges of Germany in their women's singles match against at the Australian Open tennis tournament
Li Na of China celebrates defeating Julia Goerges of Germany in their women's singles match against at the Australian Open tennis tournament

By Ian Ransom

MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Silencing the voices of doubt that plague Li Na's mind has been mission impossible at times for coaches and her stoic husband Jiang Shan, but the 30-year-old Chinese appears to have finally found harmony on and off the court.

The world number six will play Agnieszka Radwanska for a place in the Australian Open semi-finals on Tuesday, and is relishing being back in the big-time after a year-and-a-half in the grand slam wilderness.

"It's been a long time since I got this far," a jovial Li told Reuters at the player's cafe at Melbourne Park.

"You could call this a pass-mark, but there's still a lot of work to be done."

The last time Li reached the quarter-finals at a major was in 2011, when she went on to win the French Open and become the first from an Asian country to win a grand slam singles title.

In the following six majors, the last 16 was as good as it got for trailblazer Li, who struggled to deal with the higher expectations despite the efforts of hen-pecked husband-coach Jiang.

University sweetheart Jiang filled the breach after Li's split with Danish coach Michael Mortensen, who guided her to the French Open win. Jiang has since withdrawn to allow the retired Justine Henin's former coach Carlos Rodriguez take the reins.

The new arrangement has been beneficial for all parties, with Rodriguez helping to quell Li's mental demons, while harmonizing the player's marriage.

"(Jiang) is happier with the arrangement, for sure," said Li, whose husband had often been caught in the cross-fire of her on-court frustrations.

"I think the two of us feel a bit more relaxed about things. We've never quite been able to find the perfect balance between life and work. So there would be some friction at times.

"But now he's just my husband. So now both of us are thinking, 'why didn't we do this earlier?'"

Indeed, Jiang was all smiles in the player's box as his wife dispatched fourth round opponent Julia Goerges on Sunday, closing out a tense first set when trailing 5-3 in the tiebreak before hammering the German 6-1 in the second.

Li had a small eruption of anger during the match, when she sprayed an overhead smash into the tramlines, but she kept it to herself, rather than throw it in her husband's direction.

UNDERSTANDING COACH

Rodriguez had played a key part in the defusing of Li, by having her open up about her feelings rather than keep them bottled up.

"I wasn't really the kind of player to tell other people about my feelings," said Li. "But with Carlos, he reads me very well. He can tell if I'm feeling nervous at training for example.

"At the start I was like 'I'm fine, I'm fine', but now I tell him if I'm feeling nervous and he'll tell me how to deal with it, how to relax and how to ease the pressure.

"I think I'm more willing and able to let my team know how I'm feeling and what my thoughts are. It helps."

The partnership brought immediate dividends during last year's North American hard-court season, with Li reaching the final in Montreal and winning at Cincinnati.

The Argentine coach has also put Li through a hellish off-season training regime ahead of the year's first grand slam and it showed when the Chinese pumped her 30-year-old legs to chase down everything Goerges could throw at her.

Li said she felt fitter compared to her fourth-round run last year and laughs off talk of retirement at Melbourne Park where 42-year-old Japanese Kimiko Date-Krumm stunned her colleagues by making it to the third round.

Chinese media reported that a government official in Hubei offered her a plum post in her home province's tennis administration, but Li has no grand ambitions after she puts down her racket.

"If I retire, I will choose to be a housewife. I think in love, two people have to make sacrifices," she said. "Jiang Shan has never placed any demands on me, and has always travelled with me around the world and followed me on the tour.

"So I hope that after I retire I can sacrifice my life to take care of him and raise a family... It'll be up to him where we settle down. If he doesn't want to settle down in (home-town) Wuhan, then I won't be staying there without him."

(Editing by John O'Brien)

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