June 23, 2014 / 6:44 PM / 5 years ago

Li survives wobbly first set to down Polish debutante

LONDON (Reuters) - One was a grand slam novice playing her first singles match on the main tour, the other was a double grand slam champion with millions in the bank and ranked second in the world.

Li Na of China hits a return to Paula Kania of Poland in their women's singles tennis match at the Wimbledon Tennis Championships, in London June 23, 2014. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth

Yet for 30 minutes it was difficult to believe that Polish qualifier Paula Kania was the one with a 0-0 win-loss record at Wimbledon and on the WTA tour as she gave Australian Open champion Li Na a jolly good runaround on the most famous stage in tennis.

For the best part of the first set, it looked as though Li could suffer the indignity of successive first-round gram slam defeats, but the experience of having played almost 700 tour-level matches finally told as she salvaged a 7-5 6-2 victory.

Asked what she knew about Kania before their first round tussle, a smiling Li quipped: “Zero. I tried to find something on the internet but I could not.”

That was no surprise, given that Kania was a practical nobody in world tennis.

While Li is no stranger to competing in the biggest arenas across the globe, with millions of Chinese fans following her every move, Kania can usually be found playing on the second-tier Challenger circuit, where dusty courts often resemble abandoned car parks.

But instead of being overawed by her lush green cavernous surroundings on Monday, the 183-ranked Kania took on the role of a seasoned campaigner as she left her celebrated opponent, and umpire Marija Cicak, red-faced by romping to a 4-2 lead.

Upon hearing Cicak overrule a Li shot by announcing “correction, the ball was in”, Kania looked quizzically at the umpire and asked: “Did you just call her ball in?”

When Cicak confidently nodded her head, Kania fired back: “In that case I challenge.”

When Cicak’s face turned a bright shade of red, there was no need to double-check which way Hawkeye’s call had gone.

Kania was on the verge of taking the opening set at 5-4 and 30-30 on her serve, but that was when Li’s experience kicked in.

The 32-year-old won 10 of the next 12 games to seal a second-round date with Austrian Yvonne Meusburger.

The popular Li admitted that she needs to work harder on her scouting in future.

“Two or three days ago I was practicing with another player, and her coach said, I think she (Kania) has good forehand. I played her backhand today and she didn’t miss one shot,” a bemused Li said.

“So I think I need to talk to the guy later.”

Editing by Clare Lovell and David Goodman

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