MELBOURNE, Australia -- No. 4 Li Na defeated No. 30 Eugenie Bouchard 6-2, 6-4 on Thursday to advance to her third Australian Open final in the last four years.
Li thoroughly outclassed the 19-year-old Canadian, who started the match nervously, an understandable reaction to her first Grand Slam semifinal. Li raced to a 5-0 lead in the first set. Though the second set was closer due to a series of multiple-deuce games, Bouchard's inability to hold her serve did her in. She served at 45 percent for the match and won only 18 percent of her second-serve points. You can't win with that stat line, but Bouchard leaves with something to work on; there's little doubt that she'll be on this stage again soon.
Game-by-game analysis of Li's win below:
11:08 p.m. ET | Li Na defeats Eugenie Bouchard 6-2, 6-4 to advance to her third Australian Open final.
Li builds a 30-0 lead before a forehand unforced error and a double-fault make things a little tricky. She goes down the tee to Bouchard's backhand on the next serve and gets a return long to earn a match point.
On match point the two scramble from side to side and it's Li who finally gets a backhand off a net cord. She steps into it and rips it cross court for the winner and throws up her hands in celebration.
Here's how match point played out:
Just a solid, veteran display from Li to send young Bouchard packing.
Similar vibe between Bouchard/Li Na and Dimitrov/Nadal. Veteran trumps youth but we have glimpsed the future…
— Jon Wertheim (@jon_wertheim) January 23, 2014
"Today so lucky. Sorry I win the match!" Li says to the Genie Army. "This is a tennis game. If you guys happy, I go home."
"I don't know if [Rodriguez] thinks I'm stronger or not smart enough," Li jokes about her up and down match. Rodriguez turns around and gives her a thumbs up. He seems happy with her effort.
"Just take a racket, just play the ball." That's what Li says to herself when she starts going on a walkabout. Keeping it simple is a good thing. Because this is what it can do for you:
Final stats for Li: 4 aces, 5 double faults, 61 percent first serves in, 41 percent second serve points won, 11 of 14 at the net, 6 of 10 on break points, 35 winners and 23 unforced errors.
Final stats for Bouchard: 2 aces, 2 double faults, 45 percent first serves in, 18 percent second serve points won, 4 of 5 at the net, 3 of 7 on break points, 10 winners, and 14 unforced errors. Bouchard won just five points on her second serve.
11:01 p.m. ET | Li holds, leads *5-4.
Li doesn't make a mess of her service game this time. She builds a 40-0 lead quickly and holds at 15. She's one game away from her second straight Australian Open final.
Amazing graphic from ESPN showing the difference in Li's serve from two years ago until now. She's getting an average of five inches more margin on that shot under Carolos Rodriguez. Nice work, coach.
Bouchard holds and Li will serve for a spot in the final.
10:56 p.m. ET | Li breaks, leads *4-3.
Bouchard is still getting killed on her second serve. She's won just 13 percent for the match on her second serve, and it just sits up for Li to hit it. This is a big problem because she's only getting 47 percent of her first serves in. That's why she's struggling to hold in this match and that might be why this ends up being a straight set loss.
Li gets three break points at 0-40 and only needs one. Breaks at love.
Funny moment there when on 0-40, a Li forehand is called long. She's down to only one challenge but she uses it anyway and it's shown in. I'm taking credit for that. I got a lot of flack (for some reason) for telling Li that her ace on set point in the first set against Agnieszka Radwanska in the Wimbledon quarterfinal last year, which she didn't challenge, was in. Since then she says she's all about challenging everything and everything.
10:52 p.m. ET | Li and Bouchard exchange breaks, tied *3-3.
Breaking: Li Na has found her backhand. She rips some sizzlers cross-court to break Bouchard easily. The Canadian is again getting caught playing too much defense from corner to corner. She's never going to win that battle.
Li gets a time violation early in her service game, which is something the umpires have been cracking down on this tournament. Another deuce service game for Li and Bouchard gets a break point, which she converts.
10:40 p.m. ET | Li breaks back, tied 2-2*.
After all that work, Bouchard throws in a horrible service game to get broken at 15. Two forehand unforced errors and a double-fault made things very easy for Li there.
However, Li has lost the confident, clean play from the first set. She's already hit as many unforced errors in this set than she did in all of the first eight games of this match, and as a result she's pulling her shots off. There's a little more air under them and they're landing short. That's a much easier ball for Bouchard to handle.
She has to save another break point, her fourth of the set, but she holds with an ace down the tee.
ESPN showing footage of Li falling down and banging her head on the court last year in the final. This year she's repeatedly been telling reporters her goal is to just not fall down in Melbourne. It's hard to really get across how important Li is to the tennis press. She's always good for a quote, she's a pleasure to interview and she speaks honestly about her doubts and all the pressure that comes with being the biggest tennis star in China. Her nickname is "Big Sister Na" among Chinese fans, because they look up to her as an example of how to be your own independent person while still coming through the Chinese system.
10:31 p.m. ET | Bouchard breaks, leads *2-0.
Four deuce game for Bouchard, but she finally gets the hold as Li overcooks a forehand long. Much better from Bouchard, who finally stepped in to take a big cut on her backhand and hit it for a winner. She needs to be more aggressive. Li made her look like the grinding junior player that, as I wrote, she's evolved away from. She needs to hit bigger to get into Li's head. She's toast if she's going to rely on her legs.
Sure enough, she's stepping into the court and being much more aggressive in this set. Bouchard earns two break points on Li's serve, behind some better returning. Li saves them both with two good, well placed first serves. That's the Li 2.0 that has been so impressive under Rodriguez. She didn't let herself get to the "Uh, oh" stage mentally and dialed back in quickly. The game has always been there for Li. It's all about getting out of her own negative headspace.
On her second game point, Li yanks a down-the-line forehand so wide you have to wonder if she was trying to hit the ball out of the players' entrance tunnel. Oops. She earns another game point but Bouchard gets a good lunging forehand return deep right at her feet. Li can't control the forehand response, spraying it wide. She comes back with an ace out wide for her fourth game point.
Again, Bouchard with a very good return. Not going for angle, but just trying to jam Li, sending it right back at her. Great battle in this game, which has lasted over nine minutes so far.
Bouchard earns her third break point of the game with another good return, followed up with a nice backhand up the line to open up the point and earn a short ball that she puts away. Li nets a forehand and Bouchard gets the break. Huge.
10:10 p.m. ET | Li Na wins the first set 6-2.
Not the easiest of service games, but Li Na serves it out to stop Bouchard's momentum and take the first set in 28 minutes. A little wobble at the end that could foreshadow a more competitive second set. 13 winners and 8 unforced for Li, 2 winners and 5 unforced for Bouchard. If Bouchard picks up her game we'll have a match.
The Canadian will serve first in the second set and needless to say, she has to hold.
10:04 p.m. ET | Bouchard breaks and holds, trails *5-2.
Like I said, nobody calls her "No-Nonsense Na". She falls behind 0-40 as she tries to serve out the bagel set, serving in two double-faults. She's serving into the sun.
Baby, baby, baby, (six-)oh? Baby, baby, baby, no! Genie avoids bagel, gets on board at 1-5. Can she she comeback? Never say never. #AusOpen
— Ben Rothenberg (@BenRothenberg) January 23, 2014
That's a little too much Bieber knowledge from The New York Times' Ben Rothenberg. Frightening.
That easy break seems to have relaxed Bouchard. She plays her best service game of the set (not hard considering it was also the first one in which she's won a point) and she's on a roll of two games. The Genie Army is excited. They are also, as Jon Wertheim wrote, kind of creepy.
9:57 p.m. ET | Li breaks yet again, leads *5-0.
Li breaks again and Bouchard has yet to win a point on her serve. She's won just three points to Li's 20 and is getting thoroughly outclassed by the veteran. So much has been made, rightfully so, about Bouchard's poise through the quarterfinals. But this is a reckoning she's having and you have to wonder if all the media attention of the last 48 hours served as a tough distraction. As for Li, this is the perfect start to keep the young upstart doubting whether she can cut it on this stage. Nine winners and just two unforced errors for Li.
9:55 p.m. ET | Li breaks and consolidates, leads 4-0*.
Li giving nothing to Bouchard, who looks a little more nervous than in her previous matches. She's won just two points in the first 14 points and she's already down a double-break.
Should we blame Justin Bieber?
@geniebouchard good luck :)
— Justin Bieber (@justinbieber) January 22, 2014
Incidentally, the Justin Bieber of the tennis world, Bernard Tomic, is sitting in Bouchard's player box. I'll just leave that there. Milos Raonic is there too.
Li holds and she's on fire. Bouchard has won three points in the match. This is such a "Get off my lawn" start from Li.
9:48 p.m. ET | Li breaks and consolidates, leads 2-0*.
"We have to try to keep Li Na focused on her path," Li's coach Carlos Rodriguez tells ESPN's Pam Shriver, referring to their preparation. "From the beginning to set up her game and leave the emotions behind." On how she's picked up her game since saving that match point against Safarova, "I think it's a big change. The pressure is off."
Great start for Li, who breaks Bouchard at love with some great returns and clean hitting. "No-Nonsense Na", we call her. Just kidding. No one calls her that.
Bouchard gets on the board on the sixth point of the match with some great defense that she punctuates with a running forehand pass that curls in. But Li still holds at 30.
9:40 p.m. ET | Warm up
Bouchard and Li are on court and as much as the young Canadian has charmed the Melbourne crowd with her very organized Genie Army and her no-nonsense mentality, Li has spent three years become the darling of the Aussie crowd. They know how big a win for her at this tournament would be for tennis in this region, with the Chinese interest in the tournament and the continued growth of the game down here. The Aussies usually don't have one of their own late in the second week, and as we saw last year when she played Azarenka in the final, the home crowd considers her their own. Sure enough, she gets the bigger cheers during the warm-up.
It's a warmer, but perfectly pleasant day here in Melbourne. Veteran umpire Alison Hughes (neé Alison Lang) is in the chair for the match. Bouchard won the toss and chooses to serve.
ESPN2 are saying it's Li's title to lose. Whoa there, guys. The pressure is on Li here and we know how she deals with that, though she's been better. That said, I do think that match point she saved in her match against Lucie Safarova, which she saved thanks to Safarova sending a sure winner just long, is a signal that this might just be her year. She had a set lead on Kim Clijsters in the final in 2011, and she looked poised to win last year until she literally stumbled not once, but twice. Third time's the charm?
In the meantime, you have to watch this hilarious interview Li did after her last win. Her stand-up comedy game is strong:
Players are done with their warm up. Ready? Play.
No. 4 Li Na and No. 30 Eugenie Bouchard will meet in the semifinals of the Australian Open on Thursday. The match is scheduled to begin no earlier than 1:30 p.m. local time (9:30 p.m. ET Wednesday). ESPN2 will televise.
Li, 31, is seeking her second straight appearance in the final and third overall. The 2011 French Open champion saved a match point in her third-round victory over No. 26 Lucie Safarova, but otherwise she's cruised through the draw. She lost a combined six games in her last two matches, against No. 22 Ekaterina Makarova in the fourth round and No. 28 Flavia Pennetta in the quarterfinals.
Li won their only meeting, a 6-4, 6-4 victory in the first round of the 2012 Rogers Cup. But the Bouchard she'll face on Thursday is a very different player. Bouchard is more aggressive than ever, hitting and serving big and showing a willingness to go for winners from anywhere. Li will need to adjust to that level of aggression. A good serving day is key: If Li can hold without much trouble, then the pressure is with Bouchard, whose serve isn't as good as her opponent's (yet).
Bouchard, 19, whose composure belies her age, is contesting her first major semifinal in her first main-draw appearance at the Australian Open and fourth at a Slam. She defeated No. 14 Ana Ivanovic in the quarterfinals, the only seeded player she faced through five matches. Bouchard is trying to become the first Canadian to make a major final. From a technical perspective, Li is too good at this stage of her career to lose this match. Bouchard, though, may have the mental edge. The teenager has nothing to lose, while Li is facing the pressure of delivering on her best chance to win here -- there's no Serena Williams or Victoria Azarenka standing in her way -- and, at her age, who knows how many more shots she'll get?