Li Na Wins Tight 3-Setter to Reach Aussie Open Final

Li Na defeated No. 1 seed Caroline Wozniacki 3-6, 7-5, 6-3 to set up a date with Kim Clijsters in Saturday’s Australian Open women’s final. It will be the first time a player from Asia plays in the singles final of one of tennis’ four major tournaments.

Li fended off a match point in the second set and rebounded for a 3-6, 7-5, 6-3 win over No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki, while Clijsters, advancing to her eighth major final, beat No. 2-ranked Vera Zvonareva 6-3, 6-3.

“This is good experience for my whole life, because many players, they play a long time, but they never play the final for a Grand Slam,” Li said.

Li’s bubbly personality off-court and her steady play on it have won her legions of new fans, particularly in her native China.

Denmark’s Caroline Wozniacki, left, congratulates Li Na after their semifinals match Thursday. (AP Photo/Rob Griffith)

For the past 10 days, Li has regaled the crowds and television audiences with her wit, joking about credit card spending, her mother’s reluctance to watch any of her matches, and the snoring of her husband and coach, Jiang Shan.

A mark of her respect for other players was evident Thursday when she was asked about Clijsters.

“She’s a nice person,” Li replied, preferring to not initially comment on the Belgian’s court prowess. “A good player, tough player, another challenge.”

Her win was big news in China, where television commentator Xu Chang said Li had raised the profile of Chinese tennis, which has long struggled for recognition next to badminton and table tennis.

“Li has realized the dreams of all those promoting Chinese tennis,” Xu said.

The official Xinhua News Agency said a Grand Slam win by Li “would also inspire a rush of new tennis players in China.”

Li beat Clijsters in the final of the tuneup event at Sydney, where she came back from 5-0 down in the first set to win it in straight sets.

Wozniacki, playing at a major for the first time with the No. 1 ranking, had match point at 5-4 and 40-30 in the second set before Li rallied. Another 66 minutes later, Li served and won on her first match point.

Li lost to Serena Williams in two tiebreak sets in the semifinals here last year in her previous best run at a major.

Her trip to the final is just another first for Li, who was the first Chinese player to win a tour-level title and the first to enter the top 10. She is also the first player from Asia to reach a Grand Slam singles final.

“I’m so happy I can be the first Chinese player to come to a final — I always do the first one!” she said.

Asked what motivated her comeback, she deadpanned: “Prize money.”

Li looked down and out after the first set, when she made 17 unforced errors and struggled for consistency. She finished with 51 unforced errors, but that was a reflection of her pushing Wozniacki to the extremes.

Wozniacki ensured she’ll retain the No. 1 ranking by reaching the semifinals — after coming back from a set and a break down to beat French Open champion Francesca Schiavone in three sets — but she’ll no doubt be answering questions about her ranking for tournaments to come.

“Sometimes in matches or in tennis it’s one ball that can change everything,” Wozniacki said. “I didn’t get my match point.

“Right now I’m sitting here and I wish I would have won the match. It’s quite difficult to get through this one. I just need to get back on the practice court and keep working hard. Hopefully I’ll get many more chances in the future.

Clijsters says she’ll use her previous appearances in finals — she’s won three U.S. Opens, including two since she returned from a retirement after getting married and having a child — to her advantage.

“I guess I’ve been on tour for a while and I’ve played big matches and not always won them,” Clijsters said. “Although I’ve lost them sometimes, they really do teach you a lot of things.”

Federer had similar comments after the 16-time Grand Slam winner, was knocked out of the Australian Open 7-6 (3), 7-5, 6-4 on Thursday by 2008 champion Novak Djokovic.

“It’s not the end in any way,” he said. “Sure, it’s disappointing and it hurts in the moment itself. I wish I could have won here again for the fifth time.

“But that’s sometimes how it goes. Doesn’t mean the guy that doesn’t win the tournament can’t play tennis. That’s sometimes how things are portrayed. I had a great season last year, and I think I’ll have another one this year.”

Before the tournament Nadal was going for his fourth straight Grand Slam win and Federer was aiming for his fifth Australian title.

Instead, Nadal was eliminated by fellow Spaniard David Ferrer and Federer is heading home. Djokovic will face Andy Murray or Ferrer in the final — they play on Friday.

“I’m looking forward to watching that match tomorrow from my bed with some popcorn,” Djokovic said. “David played a fantastic match against Rafa even though Rafa was struggling obviously with injuries.

“They are in top shape. Andy has been in top shape on this court. It’s a Grand Slam final, anything can happen. I believe in myself.”

It will be the first time since 2003 that Federer will not hold any of the four major titles and the first time that neither Nadal nor Federer will not feature in a Grand Slam final since the Australian Open in 2008, when Djokovic beat Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

It will be the first time since 2003 that Federer will not hold any of the four major titles.

The finals scenario could open the door for Murray to become the first British Grand Slam singles champion since Fred Perry in 1936 when the final is played Sunday night at Rod Laver Arena.

“It’s really one of the best matches I’ve played in a while,” Djokovic said.

It is the second straight Grand Slam in which Djokovic has knocked Federer out in the semis. At last year’s U.S. Open, the Serbian player saved match points before beating Federer in five sets to advance to the final against Nadal.

The last time Federer was beaten in straight sets in a Grand Slam tournament was here in 2008 — against Djokovic.

Federer won 11 of 14 points to come back from a service break down to take the lead in the second set after the two traded tit-for-tat booming forehands and chip backhands during the opening set. But Djokovic broke back later in the second set and took his power strokes into the third set to win in an even three hours.

It was the 20th meeting of the pair. Federer still holds a 13-7 edge.