Hot shot: China’s Li Na has fought her way to the WTA Championship final. Photo: Reuters
Li Na started this year with the twin goals of winning another grand slam title and becoming the first Asian player to break into the world's top three.
The latter objective now achieved, Li's coach Carlos Rodriguez rates the Australian Open as the Chinese superstar's best chance of accomplishing part one.
''I think it's maybe the best conditions for her. That is what I see. Especially the beginning of the year, she's more fresh and pressure-less,'' Rodriguez said of Li, who has reached two of the past three finals at Melbourne Park and lost, first, to Kim Clijsters and then Victoria Azarenka, both times in three sets.
''She is a good outsider [for next year's title],'' Rodriguez said. ''She can play something. But it's so difficult to predict. The work is going to be done to try to improve different sectors of the court to give her more confidence, to go out there in the quarters and the semis, to go out there and play big tennis. This is the challenge. Because Australian Open, you see last year, quarters, semis, you have to play big tennis. If not, you stay there.''
Still, progress is tangible, with fifth-ranked Li reaching Sunday night's WTA Championship final – and, thus, No.3 in the world – with a 6-4, 6-2 defeat of Petra Kvitova that was a routinely straightforward affair compared with Serena Williams' strange encounter with Jelena Jankovic in semi No.2.
During a long conversation after her semi-final drubbing from Williams in the US Open semi-finals, Rodriguez told Li what was still possible this year: that she could finish in the top four by reaching the semi-finals in Istanbul, and No.3 by progressing to the decider. ''I was like, 'Sounds easy','' Li said. ''He say, 'Yeah, but you have to do what you say. Don't say what you do.'''
And so she has, 18 months into her partnership with the man who was the career-long mentor of the retired Belgian great Justine Henin. The women have never met, but Rodriguez said a discussion between the two disparate personalities could be to Li's benefit, and joked that ''maybe I bring Justine next time, [for] on-court coaching''.
Meanwhile, Williams' issue was all physical, she claimed, after her curious, almost bizarre, performance against a sceptical Jankovic. The American won 6-4, 2-6, 6-4 and seemed devoid of strength, energy and even interest at times, distressed and emotional at others, between bursts of normal self in the penultimate performance of an unprecedented 82-match season.
Describing her fuel tank as ''E'' for empty, Williams said she had ''hit a wall'' of fatigue when lying in her hotel room the previous night.
A sceptical Jankovic said it was difficult to play against someone who ''every time she starts losing, she starts serving slower or not running for certain balls'', and rather pointedly mentioned the importance of good sportsmanship, whatever the circumstances.