Published January 25, 2011
MELBOURNE, Australia – Li Na is back in the Australian Open semifinals, and the latest seeded player to lose to the Chinese star says she is the woman to beat.
Could be a nice couple of days for Melbourne's best shops and stores.
The 28-year-old Li has become a crowd favorite here with a demeanor that is all business on the court but quickly turns to snappy one-liners in English that reveal a quick wit and sharp sense of humor.
Li's crack about her coach and husband Jiang Shan promising to let her loose with their credit card if she won has become a running joke of the tournament.
She beat Germany's Andrea Petkovic 6-2, 6-4 Tuesday to reach the Melbourne semis for the second straight year, and was asked if it was enough to win a shopping spree, or whether she needed to go all the way to the championship.
"No, end of the tournament," she said with a smile, pointing toward her support box, where Jiang and her team had been a minute earlier but the seats were now empty. "You can see now — the credit card, he just left, you can't find him anymore."
You wouldn't know it from her manner but Li is carrying a heavy burden. The expectation is that a Grand Slam win would inspire a rush of new players from China, where sporting success is considered a matter of national pride but where table tennis and badminton remain far more widespread than her sport.
She is already China's leading player, cracking the top 10 in 2010 with three singles titles. She reached her first Grand Slam semifinal at Melbourne Park last year by beating current No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki and Venus Williams before losing to Serena Williams.
She ended a long winning streak for Kim Clijsters — one of the favorites at Melbourne Park — earlier this month at a warmup tournament in Sydney, fighting back from 0-5 in the first set to win in straight sets.
She beat No. 8 Victoria Azarenka to reach the fourth round, and the 30th-seeded Petkovic was so impressed after Tuesday's loss that she picked Li to win the tournament.
Not so fast, said Li, who will play Wozniacki in the semis, with Clijsters or No. 2 Vera Zvonareva on the other side of the draw.
"I wish I can win the tournament," Li said, when told of Petkovic's prediction. "But if I need to win tournament, still have two steps I need to do. (It's) always easy to say something."
Petkovic, who advanced to the fourth round when Venus Williams retired with an injury and beat former No. 1 Maria Sharapova and to reach the quarters, said Li was unflappable and gave her no chances at all Tuesday.
"She has this sneaky aggressive play, I would call it," Petkovic said, admiringly.
"It's nothing that I can tell you — her forehand is good or her backhand — it's just the feeling, how she is on court, her confidence and the way she's playing," she said. "I just feel she has a great chance to win the tournament."
Li gave up tennis for two years to do media studies at a university after becoming disillusioned with her lack of rankings success and re-entered the game in 2004.
"After two years, I was feeling like, OK, I'm grown up, I should stand up to try my best," she said.
Now, she's playing better and is far happier on the court than she used to be. And with every game, the prospect of a Chinese major winner grows closer.
"Wow, amazing for me, amazing for my team," Li said Tuesday, asked what it would mean to win the tournament. "Maybe amazing for China tennis also."