Tough restart for China`s Li Na
Doha: Li Na`s return after her Australian Open triumph last month brought her a surprisingly hard fight and a struggle against difficult conditions, but the settling of an old score.
The top-seeded Chinese player needed two and a quarter hours to overcome a blustery wind and Magdalena Rybarikova, the world number 32 from Slovakia, by 6-1, 5-7, 6-2, thus reversing the result of their only previous meeting.
"It`s always exciting, and I`m always nervous when I come back (after an interval)" said Li. "It`s always difficult - and she played well.
"But I have been training mentally with Carlos (Rodriguez, her coach).
"Technique is not a problem for me. But mentality can be a big opponent. And that I have changed a lot."
Rybarikova had denied Li the grass court title at Birmingham, England, five years ago in a Wimbledon warm-up event, This time around Li was a better, more confident, and much more ambitious player.
Indeed for a while her determined ambition might almost have been her undoing, for the 31-year-old persistently tried to impose an attacking style - perhaps as an insurance for her post-30 future - in very tricky conditions.
It worked well at the start, in which she took five games in little more than 20 minutes, but errors flowed more frequently from her racket in an up-and-down second set.
During that phase Rybarikova improved, playing intelligently, tenaciously, and with variety, although she looked a little jaded in the latter stages of the final set.
Both her start and her finish may have been influenced by the aftermath of a hard three-hour battle the day before with Francesca Schiavone, the former French Open champion.
"The first match (after an interval since the Australian Open) is always difficult," said Li. "I have had a long time just preparing, and then I have to play these conditions on court.
"After the Australian Open I have to do more, to be more perfect" she added, when asked about opponents who might now be even keener to try and beat her.
"Now everyone is looking at what I am doing, so it`s very tough - but I am confident."
It did not look tough at the start of the match, in which Li hit the ball off the ground with great pace, came to the net a little more often than usual, and appeared to be building up an unstoppable momentum.
But to Rybarikova`s credit she withstood the battering well, kept her head, started to move better, and mixed up slice with topspin, angles with straight counter-hitting.
She had started getting into the rallies at the end of the first set, and surged to a break of serve immediately in the second.
Rybarikova also created break points in the eighth and tenth games, before making the decisive break in the 12th with the help of a Li double fault.
But Li responded well to this surprising challenge, breaking at once in the third set, saving a break back point in the fourth game, and maintaining a good level of aggression.
Only in the final game, when Li wanted to close out the match, did she compromise a little more and aim to win the concluding points with consistency.
Her second round could bring her against a Chinese compatriot, Zhang Shuai, or Maryna Zanevska, a Ukrainean qualifier.