By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Lion-hearted Li Na broke new ground for China at the Australian Open on Thursday, fighting back to topple world number one Caroline Wozniacki and become her country's first singles grand slam finalist.
Down a set and trailing 5-4 in the second, Li saved a match point before stunning Wozniacki with a brilliant rearguard attack to seal the match 3-6 7-5 6-3 and send red-clad Chinese fans at Rod Laver Arena into ecstasy.
"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," said Li, who will play her best tennis at the age of 28 after spending years battling injuries.
"Today I get it, so (I'm) feeling I can do well in next two days.
"Maybe many young players or children (in China) will see and think, 'maybe one day we can do the same or even better than her.'"
Li will hope to get a better night's sleep on Friday after complaining that her husband and coach Jiang Shan had woken her up with his snoring the night before her match against Dane Wozniacki.
"My husband just says, 'relax'. I say, 'How? Tell me how can I relax because I couldn't sleep," said Li.
The lack of sleep appeared to tell in the first set as Li grumpily bleated at Jiang in the stands when her baseline rockets cannoned into the net or sailed over the lines under a hot sun at Rod Laver Arena.
Wozniacki's defense was fortress-like and her canny anticipation of Li's shot-making repeatedly frustrated the Chinese, who struggled to put away the Dane's lobbed saves.
Wozniacki ratcheted up the pressure to win a break at 3-2 and Li clubbed a forehand return long to throw away the first set and slump in her chair furrow-browed.
However, the slow-starting Li has made a career of battling her way back into matches and saved her best tennis when standing on the precipice of defeat.
Li saw off match point by forcing an error from Wozniacki, then nervelessly rushed to the net to poke a sharp volley to break back to 5-5.
With Chinese fans screaming "Jia you!" (come on), Li held serve to love and Wozniacki wavered, sending a shot long to concede a set point and then double-faulted to take the match into a decider.
"I had a match point and I didn't take it ... Sometimes in matches or in tennis it's one ball that can change everything," said a downcast Wozniacki.
"From then on, well, she was just better at the most important points.
"Of course right now I'm sitting here and I wish I would have won the match. It's quite difficult to get through this one."
Both players struggled to hold serve in the final set as tension reached boiling point, but Li captured the decisive break at 4-3 when the Dane netted a backhand to cap a ferocious baseline battle.
Li stood firm to serve out the match, coming back from 0-30 down to seal it when a tiring Wozniacki clubbed a forehand wide to raise China's hopes of a maiden singles grand slam champion.
When asked what had got her through the suspense of the third set, Li grinned and answered: "Prize money."
Riding an 11-match winning streak, Li will fancy her chances of another stunning upset after upending Belgian Clijsters to win the Sydney International earlier this month.
"Yeah, another challenge. Of course it's a tough match. Tennis is never easy," said Li.
"I don't need to think about it too much ... It's Saturday night so I still have two days. I can totally rest right now."
(Editing by John O'Brien and Peter Rutherford)