MELBOURNE, Australia -- Li Na's bubbly personality off-court and her steady play on it at the Australian Open have won her legions of new fans, particularly in her native China.
It might even earn her a Grand Slam singles title.
|Australian Open: Day 11|
Li, the first Chinese woman to advance to a singles final at a major, will take on U.S. Open champion Kim Clijsters in Saturday night's final at Rod Laver Arena.
Li fought off a match point in the second set Thursday and rebounded for a 3-6, 7-5, 6-3 victory against No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki, while Clijsters, advancing to her eighth major final, beat 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.
Clijsters says she'll use her previous appearances in finals -- she has 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."
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's, 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."
|Kim Clijsters defeats Vera Zvonareva for the seventh time in 10 meetings and will replace her as No. 2 in the world rankings. (Getty Images)|
"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.