Australian Open 2011: Li Na First Asian Player in Open Era to Reach Slam Final

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Australian Open 2011: Li Na First Asian Player in Open Era to Reach Slam Final
Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

Michael Chang won the French Open in 1989 as an American.

Therefore we can't count the former world No. 2's trophy as a win for Asia.

However, the New Jersey native devoted a lot of energy and money to the evolution of tennis in China.

It might be thanks to him that Na Li will be playing her first Grand Slam final in a major on Saturday.

The No. 9 seed saved a match point before turning the table and defeating current world No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki 3-6, 7-5, 6-3 in the semifinals.

Li, who already reached the same stage last year in Melbourne, becomes a true warrior when she returns to play in Australia.

The 28-year-old will need all her fighting skills when she takes on Kim Clijsters for the title.

The Sydney champion will take an 11-win streak into her Homebush Bay finals rematch against Clijsters, the Belgian having eliminated second seed Vera Zvonareva 6-3, 6-3 in less than half the time.

"I am so happy I can be the first Chinese player coming to the final," said the trailblazer from Wuhan, who was also the first to be ranked in the top 20 and then the top 10. Back in 2004, she was the first to win a WTA singles title.

"[It's] good for my tennis career, of course," said Li, one of four Chinese women in the top 100. "Good for me, good for my team. Maybe good for China tennis. I'm not sure. Maybe. Of course this is a good experience for my whole life, because many players, they play a long time but they never come to the final for a Grand Slam. Today I get it, so I'm feeling I can do well in next two days."

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Her victory over the Belgian at Sydney two weeks ago is something she will use when they play in two days.

In that match, Li roared back from 0-5 to beat Clijsters and claim the biggest singles title ever for a Chinese woman.

Entering the Australian Open as the ninth seed, Li has defeated bigger women from Sweden (Sofia Arvidsson), Germany (Andrea Petkovic), Belarus (Victoria Azarenka) and Denmark (Caroline Wozniacki), all countries with longer tennis traditions than China.

Her tenacity on the court, defensive game and carefree smile off it appeal to more than just Chinese fans in Australia, as even elderly ladies and beefy young males cheer, “Go China!” at her matches.

Although the No. 9 seed does not have a major weapon, she does everything well from the baseline, and her mental strength is what makes her win matches.

Growing up in the 1980s, Li says her parents in Wuhan encouraged her to play whatever she wanted.

Taking up tennis at age nine, she was 12 when she met another budding tennis ace, Jiang Shan, who would become a Chinese national player, her husband in 2006 and coach this year.

When Li was 14, her father died. Her mother, raising her alone, taught her about determination and the mental toughness that gives Li, now 28, an edge over pampered younger players.

Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

 

Crushing blow for Wozniacki

The top seed, meanwhile, fled to the locker room with her father Piotr to analyze why she didn't play well enough on match point.

Wozniacki had defended well, as she always does, and run her more dangerous opponent from side to side, but she simply lacks the weapons to finish off points. While naturally more frugal on the error count, she also hit just 10 winners to Li's 42, and none at all (to her opponent's 15) in the decisive third set.

It will be interesting to see if the Dane takes the positive side from this tournament.
At only 20, the Dane has plenty of time to forget about this loss and keep improving.

Meanwhile, the triple US Open champion Kim Clijsters came on court fresh, calm and businesslike against the second seed Vera Zvonareva.

Clijsters avenged her Wimbledon semifinal defeat and repeated her US Open finals victory against the Russian, her impressive display justifying the tournament favouritism she has held throughout.

Having lost three of her past four matches against the 26-year-old, Clijsters knew she had to raise her level from her previous matches and did so clinically.

The Belgian leads the Chinese 4-2 head-to-head and will be the favorite despite their last encounter.



N.B.

I'm waiting until the end of the tournament to make my point on the men's side. Rafael Nadal lost while fighting injury, while Novak Djokovic beat Roger Federer. Let's see if the Serb can go all the way and beat Andy Murray or David Ferrer in the final.

Today and yesterday's events at the Australian Open were important. A lot of questions will be raised between now and Monday, so let's wait until the final match point to make a complete analysis.

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