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Li Na wins the battle of the wounded knees

Na Li begins a serve.
by Ronald Atkin
Tuesday 25 June 2013

To the loud approval of a large contingent of her followers on Court 12, China’s Li Na cruised into the second round of the Ladies’ Singles by defeating Michaella Krajicek, the would-be comeback kid from Holland, in a match that was more closely contested than the 6-1, 6-1 scoreline would indicate.

This might be termed the Battle of the Wounded Knees, since both players have spent much time out of action with knee problems. Li, the sixth seed at The Championships, was sidelined for four months of the 2008 season after surgery on her right knee and was out for a month with ankle trouble sustained in losing the final of this year’s Australian Open, while the 24-year-old Krajicek, having suffered knee injuries involving surgery since the age of 16, spent much of 2012 out of action because of more trouble with the right knee.

As a result of missing so much of last season, Krajicek’s ranking has plummeted to 575, but she gained direct entry to Wimbledon by being awarded a special ranking of 105. It was her first appearance at The Championships since 2008 and the rustiness showed.

Li has the ranking and the Grand Slam track record (as champion of Roland Garros in 2011), while Krajicek can boast the family pedigree on grass, her older brother Richard having won the Gentlemen’s Championship here in 1996, but it was the 31-year-old Li’s superior striking power and form which tilted an entertaining match so decisively. The contest was filled with hard, deep hitting, the difference between the two being that Li consistently struck the ball not only harder but more accurately.

In build and looks Krajicek bears more than a passing resemblance to Steffi Graf, but if Li was perturbed by this factor it certainly did not show. The Chinese broke in the opening game when Krajicek slipped on the baseline, and stayed comfortably in front with the exception of the fourth game, when Krajicek held a break-back point for 2-2, only for the opportunity to escape her. Having clung on to her serve to establish a 3-1 lead, Li broke serve twice more in toughly fought deuce games to capture the first set in 33 minutes.

Things rapidly became bleaker for the Dutch woman as Li hammered her way into a 5-0 second set lead until Krajicek finally held serve to guarantee the match would go beyond the hour mark. Only then did Li falter, committing three double-faults and fighting off two break points as she served for the match. In the end, on Li’s third match point, Krajicek obliged her by walloping a forehand service return well out.

Li summed up the victory as “a pretty good start to Wimbledon”, having lost in the second round of both the 2011 and 2012 Championships. “I still have to get used to playing on grass, so I was feeling pretty happy today.”

Li is in the forefront of popular athletes in China and is reported to have a social network following of more than 10 million, but claimed “I really had no idea”.  As for the hundreds of her compatriots cheering her every winner on Court 12, Li said, “Maybe they are students learning English here, watching the tennis, having fun.” Whatever the reason, Li smiled and acknowledged that she “really loved” their support.

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