Li Moves On, Spurring Hope for a Chinese First

MELBOURNE, Australia – On a personal level, the stakes should be the same when Caroline Wozniacki and Li Na play in the Australian Open semifinals on Thursday. Neither woman has won a Grand Slam singles title, and a victory would put one of them a match from achieving it. 

But viewed through a wider lens, the agendas diverge: Wozniacki needs to win this tournament to give herself and her No. 1 ranking credibility; Li needs to win it for more than a billion other reasons.

Of all the story lines still available in the women’s event, a Li victory, which would give China its first Grand Slam singles champion, would seem to be by far the most irresistible, and though Li and China have come this far before, the manner of Li’s victories this year in Sydney and now Melbourne has many — tennis executives presumably among them — looking ahead with anticipation.

Li has not dropped a set, not even been pushed to a tie breaker, on her way back to the semifinals here, where she and her compatriot Zheng Jie were beaten last year.

Among this year’s believers is Andrea Petkovic, the instinctive, outspoken young German whom the ninth-seeded Li beat, 6-2, 6-4, on Tuesday in the quarterfinals.

“It’s just the feeling, how she is on court, her confidence and the way she’s playing,” Petkovic said. “I just feel she has a great chance to win the tournament. I don’t want to put pressure on her, obviously. It’s just a feeling.”

Li knows pressure. She has been hearing the question “When will China have a Grand Slam champion?” since she reached the third round here in 2005. She and the other talented players of her generation, including Zheng and Peng Shuai, who lost in the fourth round after holding two match points against Agnieszka Radwanska, are collectively known as the Golden Flowers. In China, they are among the most recognizable sports figures, and the women’s team victory in last year’s Asian Games — a minor event in global tennis terms — was a significant story at home.

Chinese women have won Olympic gold medals and Grand Slam titles in doubles, but a major singles trophy remains the missing prize, made more pressing by the sense that the follow-up generation, once called the Little Flowers, has yet to make significant inroads on tour.

For now, and perhaps longer than that, it looks to be up to the 28-year-old Li, a late bloomer with a flower tattoo on her chest and an independent streak who, frustrated by her results on the satellite tour, once took a two-year break from the game to follow a media-studies program at a Chinese university before returning in 2004.

“I couldn’t find the positive thing,” she said of her sabbatical. “So I came to university for two years, also my husband with me. So we are in the same class.”

Seven years later, she and her husband, Jiang Shan, continue to work side by side. A former leading Chinese player, Jiang is back to being her primary coach after she parted ways with Thomas Hogstedt, a Swede who is now employed by Maria Sharapova.

Li has long been considered the most impressive athlete among the Chinese women. Her powerful legs and smooth base-line technique represent a very solid platform for hitting her relatively flat, low ground strokes. But she has kept faltering for good reasons: her margins for error are low, and she often becomes edgy and inconsistent under big-match pressure.

There should be plenty of that from here to the finish with the top three women’s seeds — Wozniacki, Vera Zvonareva and Kim Clijsters — still in contention. But Li should hardly walk into Rod Laver Arena without belief Thursday. She beat Wozniacki in both of their matches last season, winning in the fourth round here last year. She has the weapons and foot speed to trump Wozniacki’s world-class defenses, but Wozniacki, the not-quite-great Dane, is a remarkable competitor and underrated tactician.

She proved it again by rallying to defeat Francesca Schiavone, 3-6, 6-3, 6-3, on Tuesday. At the start, Wozniacki was marooned too far behind the baseline, while Schiavone, an Italian, used her panoply of shots and spins to spectacular effect. But Wozniacki gradually regained essential ground: advancing in the court and reeling off six straight games from 1-3 down in the second set as Schiavone, 30, began looking weary in the legs and the head.

That was no surprise considering that Schiavone is 10 years older than Wozniacki and had required 4 hours 44 minutes on Sunday to defeat Svetlana Kuznetsova in the longest recorded women’s singles match in Grand Slam history.

“But I had my chance anyway,” Schiavone said. “Maybe in the third set, I felt a little bit something physically, but it’s not an excuse. I think I gave the best that I could do.”

For Schiavone, shortening the points from a position of strength was a terrific, deeply entertaining idea. How much more exciting would women’s tennis be if more players understood how to sneak to the net when they sensed an opportunity?

But shortening points by hitting desperation drop shots that felt more like concessions than tactics was not nearly so wise, and Wozniacki, to her credit, kept hunting down balls and coming up with solutions: lob winners, tightly angled backhands and two remarkable cross-court forehand passing shots on the run that Schiavone could reach but not handle.

It has been an excellent adventure for Wozniacki in Melbourne this year, even though it is perhaps time to tone down her attempts to be entertaining in the press room (she showed up Tuesday wearing boxing gloves and carrying an inflatable kangaroo given to her by some members of the news media). But she turned serious when asked if it was strange that the No. 1 player in the world was letting others take the initiative on court.

“I just want to know who won the match,” she said. “I think I did that, so I think there is no question I’m playing to win. If the opponent makes a hundred winners, it’s too good. But if I still win the match, that’s the most important thing in the end.”

Denmark versus China may sound exotic, but the two countries are quite accustomed to competing with rackets in hand. Badminton is a major sport in both nations, but tennis is on the rise.

And though five and a half million Danes do not pack quite the same demographic punch as more than a billion Chinese, a victory on Thursday would certainly mean a great deal to Wozniacki, even if it spoils the possibility of a much bigger story.


Published: January 25, 2011

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