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Double Happiness to Keep Li on Track
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China's rebellious top women's tennis player Li Na yesterday sprung yet another surprise on the country's tennis circuit, this time when the identity of her latest coach was unveiled.

The man in question has never coached before, has no coaching qualifications and achieved nothing of note as a player, but in the eyes of the country's tennis authorities Jiang Shan has one crucial attribute: He is Li's husband.

A former player for Hubei Province, Jiang has been shouldered with the task of taking Li to new heights in 2007, the Chinese Tennis Association (CTA) announced in Beijing.

Family involvement is not infrequent in international tennis, but a husband-wife coaching set-up is a first in Chinese sporting history.

Romance is strictly prohibited in most national teams in a bid to keep athletes focused on their games, and table tennis players and gymnasts even face the sack if caught canoodling.

But CTA boss Sun Jinfang believes Jiang is the perfect man for the job.

"I think Jiang is able to give Li what she needs most over the coming years," she said. "For sure, Li is one of the most talented players in China but her weak mentality hampers her improvement. Jiang is exactly the right person to help her psychologically in training and competition."

"Finding her a good coach has been a big headache for us. I think this is the best decision we could have made right now."

A handful on and off the court, the 25-year-old from Wuhan, Hubei Province, has spilt with five coaches since joining the national team in 2003 and even criticized the CTA for not arranging proper coaches for her and slowing her progress.

National team head coach Jiang Hongwei hailed the tradition-busting appointment.

"It is very common that girls have romances," he said. "Of course we do not interfere with their private lives, but we will help the players find a boyfriend when needed.

"I think romance is a kind of motivation for them. We are playing a sport of others so we need to follow the way that European and American players do things. It's totally normal for top players to come to a tournament with their family."

Breaking Chinese records is nothing new for Li. Since turning pro in 1999, she became the first to win a WTA event, the first to break into the world top 20 and also the first Chinese to reach the quarterfinals of a grand slam.

But she has never been far from controversy.

In 2001 at the age of just 20 she shocked China's tennis establishment by announcing her retirement from the national team, shortly after the 21st Universiade in Beijing in which she won three gold medals.

At the Asian Games last month in Doha, Li blamed the crowd for disturbing her after she was thrashed by Indian Sania Mirza, who is 35 spots lower in the rankings.

"Li is obviously a big part of the Beijing Olympic Games next year, so we want her to play solid tennis and not be disturbed by other factors. Now Jiang is there, hopefully he can calm her down and help her keep on winning," said Gao Shenyang, CTA vice-director.

(China Daily January 5, 2007)

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