By Ian Ransom, Reuters | 01/23/2013 7:11 PM
MELBOURNE - Transforming trailblazer Li Na from a hot-headed one-slam wonder into a cold-blooded winner of multiple major titles is the end game for coach Carlos Rodriguez, who says the Chinese is primed to upset Maria Sharapova in the Australian Open semi-finals.
Rodriguez has guided Li into the last four of a major for the first time since her 2011 French Open triumph, whipping the 30-year-old into the shape of her life and digging her out of a rut of self-doubt.
"Now she has to believe a little bit more that she can do it. I am convinced that she has the game," Rodriguez told reporters of Li's hopes in Thursday's semi-final.
"The main thing is first of all to believe in her tennis and her possibilities to go through the semi-final which is very difficult.
"Most of my work, more than 90 percent of my job in the last 48 hours is on that."
If anyone has the pedigree to push Li further, the wiry Argentine could lay claim, having overseen Justine Henin's transition from a pint-sized teenager into a colossus of the women's game.
In one of the most successful partnerships in tennis's modern era, Rodriguez drove Henin to seven grand slam titles, convincing the Belgian that belief could overcome brawn, and finesse, raw power.
On paper and on court, the hard-hitting Li shares little in common with the retired Henin, one of the few on the women's tour with the head-game to match Serena Williams.
But Rodriguez says the players share similar characters, and he feels a strong bond with Li, who has struggled to deal with the expectations from a nation of 1.3 billion people.
"In a lot of feelings, a lot of sensibility, there are some common points that are much easier for me to work with a player like (Li)," said Rodriguez, whose tanned and craggy features bear witness to a life spent outdoors on practice courts.
"At least (Li's) a person that had the courage to put herself in the situation that she had to learn."
Li became Asia's first grand slam singles champion at Roland Garros, but failed to get past the fourth round in the following six majors, becoming a magnet for criticism from a disappointed Chinese media.
After being bundled of the second round at Wimbledon last year, Li called Rodriguez and asked him what she needed to do to get back into the big time.
The partnership bore immediate fruit, with Li advancing to the final at Montreal before winning at Cincinnati during the U.S. hard-court season.
Most of Rodriguez's wisdom has been employed to help Li between the ears because she already had the tools, built around a rapacious forehand, to upset the heavyweights, the coach said.
"I think she's a little bit more structured in her game, she's controlling a little bit much more with her emotions. But it's still a long way to go.
"Something that I bring to her is to try to understand her feelings and put words on it.
"When you're not used to communicate with a coach and it's very difficult to express yourself outside the court, imagine inside the court with almost 15,000 people inside the court watching you."
Li, a finalist at Melbourne Park in 2011, felt the old belief flooding back toward the end of the year and arrived in Australia at peak fitness after a Beijing boot-camp with Rodriguez in the off-season.
Apart from encouraging Li to use more topspin amidst her flat forehand bullets to mix up her game, Rodriguez has had the Chinese in training sessions simulating the conditions of marathon matches.
Rodriguez's involvement has also been good for Li's marriage, taking the pressure off her husband and hitting partner Jiang Shan.
When sitting in the player's box, Jiang often bore the brunt of his wife's on-court frustrations, but has been all smiles in Li's run to the semi-finals. (Reporting by Ian Ransom; Editing by Patrick Johnston)