When the world No.2 plays the world No.185, you know what to expect, right? Especially when the world No.185 is not only making her Grand Slam main draw debut after five consecutive failed attempts in qualifying, but is also making her Tour level main draw debut.
That’s right. After 20 attempts, Paula Kania’s first WTA or Slam match took place on Centre Court at Wimbledon, against the Australian Open champion Li Na. And far from being overawed, Kania grasped the nettle and had a fine old time. Barely four weeks after the Chinese was dumped out of the French Open in the first round by Kristina Mladenovic, she was given a very stiff test by the debutante before emerging the 7-5, 6-2 winner.
A match that had ‘bagel’ written all over it instead became a good contest, with Kania banking valuable self-respect. A picture of relaxation from the outset, she broke Li with a forehand pass, and for much of the first set Li seemed unable to read the Pole’s game. It was only when Kania was serving for the set at 5-4 that Li overhauled her, and while the second set always looked safe, Kania earned extra respectability with a late break before Li took the win.
After the match Li did not disguise exactly how much she knew about Kania beforehand, agreeing cheerfully: “Zero. I tried to find something on the internet, but couldn’t. A few days ago someone told me she has a good forehand, so I today I started to play her backhand and she didn’t miss a shot.”
Li responded to that shock Roland Garros defeat by taking 10 days off, leaving her rackets untouched. She is adamant it was a very good idea to have a break; but exactly how renewed and revived she may be feeling now was not quite clear.
“At the French I was feeling the pressure,” she said, adding: “I cannot handle it any more. When you have a high ranking, you always want to play well. But the person playing you has nothing to lose. I really wanted to do well in Paris and put a lot of pressure on myself.
“When you come on the court to play, there is tension. It doesn’t matter if you have been playing well in practice, you’re still nervous. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been on the Tour because you never know what is going to happen in that first match. So I was a little bit down in the first set today, but I told myself just keep going. Or else it would be like the French Open.”
Not many players speak so nakedly about their fears or true feelings. Most are taught constantly to emphasise the positive. But it has been a year of Grand Slam contrasts for Li, starting with a 13-match winning streak which took her to the Australian Open title, and then that Roland Garros defeat. The 32-year-old is a three-time quarter-finalist at Wimbledon, including last year, although that still makes it her weakest Slam as she has reached at least the semi-finals at the other three. She seems doubtful about her prospects.
“I never think I can play well on grass,” she said, with that disarming frankness. “The grass-court season is just one month out of the whole year. It’s tough to change from clay to the grass in such a short time.”
It’s true that on the evidence of this match, few tipsters are likely to be pencilling her name into the frame as a true threat to lift the Venus Rosewater Dish. It wasn’t just that Kania played without fear, in the way that absolute innocents sometimes can. It was more that by doing so, she seemed able to undermine Li mentally.
Perhaps it is all a cunning game of double bluff, but the Chinese seems so plagued by doubts before she even faces an opponent, that many players would fancy their chances of destabilising her sufficiently to secure victory. For a two-time Grand Slam champion, Li looks like a player with a lot to prove here..
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