By Alastair Himmer
MELBOURNE (Reuters) - With a first Australian Open crown now inches from her grasp, perennial crowd favorite Down Under Kim Clijsters could find herself cast in the unfamiliar role of villain Saturday as she stands between trailblazing Chinese Li Na's own designs on destiny.
The genial Belgian in a pea green dress enjoys the fond nickname "Aussie Kim" at the Melbourne grand slam but if, as expected, she finds enough firepower to dash Li's dreams of becoming Asia's first grand slam singles champion, crowd celebrations may be muted from a public which has rapidly warmed to the Chinese player.
In any case, Clijsters knows that despite being tournament favorite she cannot afford any slips in her bid to shatter Chinese hopes and will not make the mistake of underestimating Li, who has firmly shed her reputation for mental fragility with her dream run in Melbourne.
"(In the past) she was never quite able to make it through a whole grand slam," third seed Clijsters told reporters on Friday. "Mentally (now) you see a big difference."
It remains to be seen whether Li carried out her threat to make husband and coach Jiang Shan sleep in the bathroom on the eve of the women's final because of his snoring.
The ninth seed, who said the final also marked the couple's wedding anniversary, blamed her slow start in the semi-final victory over world number one Caroline Wozniacki on Jiang's nocturnal noise.
She is yet to drop a set on her way to a second Australian Open final, and first since 2004.
The working mum, who captured two of her three U.S. Open crowns after returning to the women's game in 2009 following a two-year break, has shown scant regard for sentimentality.
She handed fellow former world number one Dinara Safina the dreaded 'double bagel' with a 6-0 6-0 first round blowout which left the Russian in floods of tears.
Her 6-3 6-3 semi-final victory over second seed Vera Zvonareva, whom she also thrashed in last year's U.S. Open final, was no less brutal and she will replace the Russian as world number two when the new rankings are published.
Li, however, did upset "Aussie Kim" 7-6 6-3 in the Sydney final before the year's first major and is in the form of her life.
"She played incredibly well, probably the best that I've ever played against her. So it'll be tough. But I'm going to go out and fight for each shot like yesterday's (semi-final)."
"My best friend just called me -- she was crying on the phone," said a relaxed Li after practicing Friday. "I told her to just calm down."
Li insisted she had taken steps to curb her rebellious nature and was mentally prepared for Saturday's championship match.
"I was like (Andre) Agassi before ... because of his long hair and jeans," she joked, while adding her mother still had no interest in watching her play.
"She doesn't watch the matches," said Li. "She sent me a text message. She said, 'Well done! I'm waiting for you at home.' Yeah, that's it."
(Editing by Peter Rutherford and Ossian Shine)