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Carlos Rodriguez opens up about teaming up with Li Na
By Bobby Chintapalli, USA TODAY

MASON, Ohio – The first time Li Na met her new coach, Carlos Rodriguez, she thought he was "so skinny" and she's right. The man better known as the former coach of seven-time major winner Justine Henin looked surprisingly skinny standing there as she practiced on the Western & Southern Open's Center Court on Thursday, the day they first met in person.

On Friday he sat and watched Li win two matches — the second against top seed Agnieszka Radwanska in the quarterfinals. (Said Radwanska, who didn't know he was coaching Li and saw him for the first time Friday, "For sure he's a great coach. They might be a really good team.")

On Saturday night, Li plays another seven-time major winner, Venus Williams, in the semifinals. That's right, the semifinals. After making the final in Montreal last week. Coincidentally — or not — her new coach started working with her just before that tournament, mainly by telephone and email.

Rodriguez, who lives in Beijing and runs a tennis academy there, sat on a couch in the players' lounge talking tennis with Li soon after she beat Radwanska. He then took about 15 minutes to talk to USA TODAY Sports about the coaching arrangement, his old student and the new one, Venus Williams, his academy and more.

How did you come to be Li Na's coach?

I live in China with my family. I have a project with an academy there already two years. (My wife and my kids moved there one year ago.) Now it's coming up that she needs some help. Before I didn't have the time to do this, to concentrate on her. I was busy moving there and taking care of the family, because it's a big change. But now when her agent asked me if I'm available and happy to do this. I said we can try until the end of the year and see if she likes my way of working. I am ready to help her, because I believe that she can do a very good job on court.

So you'll work with her full time and travel with her but on a trial basis until the end of the year?Exactly. I'll be traveling to New York, Tokyo and Beijing. And if she's allowed to go to The Championships, which we hope, I'll be there.

And you have an academy in Beijing, right?

Yes, we have actually two or three good Chinese players. After a year or year and a half we'll prove that we'll do a good job. It's normal that first you have to make some proof, even if it has my name. It's a very interesting experience. I learn really, really a lot. I think I can bring another approach. I don't think it's something new, but it's another approach in how to teach tennis to the kids.

So with this coaching arrangement Li Na gets an experienced coach and you get your name out there in China?

Exactly. It's very good publicity for me. And also I can learn a lot from her, which is important because she has a lot of experience. When I worked with Justine I brought Justine to the tour. Li Na is already there. She has her own experience, won Grand Slam title, a lot of achievement. For me it's new all that, and I have to know how to manage.

What are some differences between Justine and Li Na, on court and off?

It's very difficult to say today, because I don't know her as much as I need to compare. My approach is completely different now — that I can say. Because with Justine, we were growing up together. We started when she was 13 and were together until she finished her career. All the long way we were growing up together. Here I have my own experience already, she has her own experience. My position now is a little bit different, because I have to listen a lot to try to do my job and understand her interests and to try to bring to her something that she needs.

With Justine you were talking more than you do with Li Na?

Let's say that I have to learn much more. To Li Na I have to bring different things. We are two adults now. With Justine, even when she was Top 10, she was 18 or 19 years old. (When she stopped she was 29.)

So it feels like you're dealing with more of an adult because you're starting to work with Li Na at a later age than Justine?

Exactly. When you start with somebody from 13 years old, even at 29, the relationship is still like a grandbrother or father. It's not the same approach.

Was (Thursday) the first time you met Li Na in person, and if so how was the meeting?

Yes. She's very nice person. The Chinese people are very friendly and very easy to approach. Like I say to her, we are all professionals but my way to work is to go deep into each point. It could be for her very difficult to deal with that at the beginning. That's why I say to her, "I watch first. I talk to your husband, because he knows you better than anybody. And he can tell me a lot about what he's done with you because he did a really good job. I have to take some of that information to help you out." I see already a lot of potential. The temperament is explosive — there (points to heart) is something that you have to know how to manage.

So her temperament is something you'll work with her on?

Exactly. I say to her, "For the moment you have to learn how to drive this (points to heart) with this (points to head)." Because when the opposite happens, it's a real disaster. When your feelings and your heart on the court drive this (points to head again), you don't see the road. I think she's very clever and smart — she knows why I'm here.

What are your goals together? Did you discuss working on specific things, or is it more open?

I think it's open because now I discovered a lot of things — tactically, technically, physically in the way she moves on court. She moves very well but not that efficiently, not in the right way to be really 100 percent on the ball at the right time to take the right decision.

So here in Mason you're planning what you'll working with her on?

Now I try to bring her structure. We continue to see for one more match (Saturday), to say OK I have three matches to work on it. And next week we want to make a plan to prepare for the U.S. Open as best as we can. But like I say to her, we cannot do everything in one week. We have to take the time to build solid things, to do maybe next season the right things.

And at the end of the year you'll discuss whether to continue working together into next season?

Exactly, because I have a lot of respect for all of the players — they have to decide if the collaboration is good for them or not.

When did you decide to start working together?

We decided right after the Olympics, and then we were always in contact by mail and telephone. I asked before I arrive if I can help with something, because I know some of the players and especially to give her some support, to know that somebody else is there for her.

So you were watching her matches on TV, the Internet and such?

Yeah, and I have a lot of videos from her matches before. I have to learn how to approach her.

You must be pretty happy so far? She's done well here.

Yeah, she's done unbelievable. And especially today, (beating) such good players. Even this morning. She lost with this girl (Johanna Larsson) last year. OK Radwanska, everybody knows her. I'm very interested to see (Saturday), because it's a very, very good test at the high level. Because I saw Venus's match today — she played great.

How does it feel watching players Justine played but now watching to coach a different player?

Now you have to approach Venus completely different from before. It's a very strange feeling actually. Really! I was sitting there, in the first two games, and I see Venus completely in a different way than before. I say, "How should Li Na play Venus?" It's very interesting.

How do you think Venus is playing now compared to when you were coaching Justine?
I see today that she's become a little more consistent, here and here (points to head and heart). Stosur is a good player, and I think that today Venus controlled her. Even if she struggled sometimes Venus managed the match very well. In the beginning Stosur wasn't really into it, but in the middle of the second she started to really push Venus. Venus had a 5-2 lead in the third. Something happened — I think maybe she relaxed a little. But at 5-4 she played very well. Great.

Before you decided to work with Li Na did you discuss with Justine that maybe you'll coach again?

Yes, but not that precisely. I said maybe I'm going to start. Because I don't have any idea before Li Na's agents called me. And when I see Justine — which is five, six months ago (my family sees her a little more often because they go to Belgium a little more often) — I say maybe next year but for this year it's going to be a little difficult because until the end of school I like to stay in Beijing for my kids. Which means end of June.

Are you planning to live in Beijing for a while?

Yeah, because I have a contract until the end of 2016. I'll be there until then with the family. And also to give the possibility to my kids to finish school.

· Registered
8,835 Posts
So, it seems his main focus will be teaching Li how to control her emotions on court and then try to improve her movement/footwork. Sounds reasonable, since with Li's type of game and age it would be too late to try to change her game that much.

· Premium Member
20,124 Posts
So, it seems his main focus will be teaching Li how to control her emotions on court and then try to improve her movement/footwork. Sounds reasonable, since with Li's type of game and age it would be too late to try to change her game that much.
If she can control her emotions she'll win a lot more because Li Na is all over the place when it comes to that. :lol:

· Registered
35,854 Posts
:eek: I haven't read that many interviews with coaches but this is the first one where I was impressed with what the coach had to say. :yeah:

· Registered
1,116 Posts
Great interview... footwork and mental toughness... sounds like a good starter for them! I like Na a lot, and her game is really impressive to watch if she's playing well... so I hope they do well together.

· Banned
5,286 Posts
Li Na must be one of the most frusterating players to coach. He seems to be doing well so far. Hopefully she can win her first ever tier 1 tommorow. I agree with his philosophy of working on the mental side of her game and her composure as that is her biggest weakness by far, then working on improving movement/footwork after that. She isnt going to change the basic framework of her game at this stage of her career and she doesnt have to. It is perfect for winning in todays environment if she just has a brain out there more often.
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· Trainwreck
60,165 Posts
So no more "you stupid fat husband"? :(

· I'll Hold My Breath
1,436 Posts
Great read. :yeah:
If Carlos can help Li win the matches that she shouldn't have lost, they can have a great future together.

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He speaks with the same diction as Justine. :sobbing:
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