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Li beats Sharapova, gets back on track

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French Open champion Li Na won a match for the first time since August. (Vadim Ghirda/AP)

ISTANBUL -- Li Na was asked the other day about her confidence level coming into the WTA Championships. Her heavy sigh, accompanied by a rueful laugh, said it all.

How could she be confident?  She hadn't won a match since August, losing in the first round at the U.S. Open and in Beijing, where she took only four games off a qualifier in front of the home crowd. And dating to June, she had a losing record since winning at Roland Garros.

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But in dodging the question, Li gave an answer that, in hindsight, seems quite illuminating.

"In the gym downstairs, they have [a sign that says] 'Every day is new challenge,''' Li said. "I like that one.  I mean, it doesn't matter if I'm feeling confident or something. I still have to come to the court to play my tennis."

If Li didn't take the court Wednesday with any confidence, she certainly left it with some -- even though her form still wasn't top flight. Playing the first WTA Championships match of her career, the 29-year-old defeated Maria Sharapova 7-6 (4), 6-4 in round-robin action. The French Open champion clawed her way back from 2-4 down in the first set and 0-4 down in the tiebreaker, then held off a late charge from Sharapova, who made things interesting in the second set after trailing 5-2.

"I was so happy today I can win this match, and also I think I was fighting a lot on the court," Li said.

Li knocked off Sharapova for the fourth consecutive time and recorded her first victory against the Russian on hardcourts. The win was more a credit to Li's resolve than her shot making. The two combined for 25 unforced errors in the first set alone and Sharapova was hobbled by her left ankle, withdrawing from the tournament after the match.