Bryan Armen Graham
Thursday January 27th, 2011

Ninth-seeded Li Na rallied from match point down against Caroline Wozniacki to become the first Chinese player to reach a Grand Slam final. (AP)

MELBOURNE, Australia -- You wanna talk about pressure? Try being down match point against the world’s top-ranked player, summer sun glaring down on center court. Try playing to 15,000 in the stands, maybe 300 million more watching back home on TV. Try being the brightest star in a nation of a billion, the only hope for an entire continent, the only one ever asked, When are you gonna win, let alone the big one?

You wanna talk about pressure? Li Na knows from pressure. An hour and 29 minutes into her semifinal match against Caroline Wozniacki she was feeling it. After cruising through her first five matches -- she had conceded the fewest games (26) and not dropped a set -- Li found herself staring up from a 3-6, 4-5 hole at Wozniacki, a mere rally away from her second-ever Grand Slam final. But when a six-shot flurry ended on an errant backhand by the Dane, Li saw something else -- a chance! -- and seized it like none before.

On the next point she bullied Wozniacki into mishitting another backhand, then put away the game with a forehand at net. Once Li had that break, Wozniacki’s spirit was broken. Li won the next two games to claim the second set, then swung away and snatched the last as Wozniacki parried and puffed. For her resolve, Li earned a 3-6, 7-5, 6-3 victory and a date in Saturday’s title match with Kim Clijsters, who blew past second-seeded Vera Zvonareva in straights later in the day.

What does this first-ever Grand Slam final appearance mean for Li, for China? “Good for me, good for my team,” she said. “Maybe good for China tennis. I’m not sure.”

As for Wozniacki, who knows where she goes from here? For now she is just the latest in a long line of binary champs, a rankings queen with no hardware of consequence to show for it. Until she wins some she’ll forever be second-guessed. “You can always say I missed this opportunity,” she said, her eyes red-rimmed. “You can always look at everyone who’s left in the tournament and say, I should have been there. I could have been there.”

Now that she’s not, the Li Na bandwagon is gonna need a few extra axles; either hop on or prepare to be run over. With Li at the wheel, you’re guaranteed a joy ride. Her game buckles -- and so does her wit. Her English might be limited, but her capacity for one-liners is not. When asked why she looked so sluggish at the semi’s start, Li blamed her husband and coach, Jiang Shan, for keeping her up all night with his snoring. “I was [waking] up every hour,” said Li, adding that tonight he’ll sleep in the bathroom. When asked what motivated her to keep fighting through the fatigue and the early deficit, Li didn’t hesitate: “Prize money,” she said.

A contingent of 20 fans from the Chinese consulate rooted for Li from a block of seats in the lower bowl of Rod Laver Arena. (Andrew Lawrence/SI)

When she isn’t firing zingers in Jiang’s direction, she’s staring daggers at him from the court. He takes both good-naturedly from her player’s box. At one point during the match Li tapped her fingers to her lips to shush him, as if to snap Honey, I already know what you’re gonna say. He shot back by pinching his fingers and running them across his mouth. Baby, I don’t want to hear it. Just play.

The back-and-forth keeps her loose between rallies. “He always says, ‘Relax. Just enjoy the tennis,'” she said. For most of her career, Li has found it hard to exhale. After turning pro in 1999 and experiencing little success she took a two-year sabbatical to study media at a Chinese university. Since she making her comeback in 2004, she’s never started off a year hotter than she is now. Earlier this month in Sydney she won her first tournament of the year, beating Clijsters after spotting her the first five games.

While others entertain fantasies about what her reach in China could be if she toppled Clijsters again, Li knows from reality too. Her legacy is for the Chinese media to decide. “You have to see what they are [writing] down [about] me,” she said, pointing to a group of Chinese reporters. Not that she needed their bon mots to stir expats here. A contingent of 20, from the Chinese consulate, filled a block of seats in the lower bowl at Rod Laver on Thursday. Dressed in red and waving a giant flag, they urged her on with chants of LI NA JIA YOU! -- the last bit literally translating to “add fuel.” When she surged to improbable victory, the significance of her achievement was not lost on them. The Chinese New Year, after all, is less than a week away. The Year of the Rabbit offers much promise. “This a gift for us,” said Xie Han, clutching her 8-year-old son, Huang Yin. A gift that just keeps on giving.

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