Seizes victory from jaws of defeat and can make more history for China in final
Losing a match would be nothing like losing her father when she was 14, and then growing up an only child with a hard-working mother who, though not interested in sports, let her follow her passion for tennis.
“I always try to stay positive, and my team gives me good energy,” Li, 28, told the South China Morning Post in an interview after she bounced back to save the match point and beat world No 1 Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark 3-6, 7-5, 6-3.
“There were only 20 seconds between points, there was not much time to think. I always tell myself to stay focused, take some chances, make her move into different positions.
“She is younger than me , and I was feeling she was a little shaky. She can only put the ball back to me but not hurt me. She couldn’t hit a lot of winners. So I thought `now is my chance’.”
A risk-taker by nature, Li stayed aggressive and with the crowd chanting her name between points, she painted the lines with her signature hard, flat ground-strokes.
“I made a lot of mistakes in the first set and also the beginning of the second set. After I saved match point, I was thinking now I have a chance.”
Taking a 4-2 lead in the third set, Li shanked some forehands and seemed to run out of gas, as she fanned herself with her hand and yelled in Wuhan dialect towards her husband Jiang Shan, who became her coach this month.
With Wozniacki rallying, Li dug deep and responded with missiles that repeatedly hit corners and sidelines on her way to a 6-3 final set win.
Li will play Kim Clijsters in tomorrow’s final after the Belgian beat second seed Vera Zvonareva 6-3, 6-3 in the other semi-final.
Li beat Clijsters, 27, in the Sydney International in the lead-up to the Open, recovering from 5-0 down in the first set to win 7-6 (7-3), 6-3.
“I think we’re very similar type of players,” Clijsters said. “We have a lot of things in common on the court. She’s playing with obviously a lot of confidence and so am I.”
Li said the historic win was “good for me, good for my team, maybe good for Chinese tennis”, because as she said later, “maybe many young players or children will see me in the finals, and they will think `maybe some day one day we can do the same or even better than her’.
The Chinese sports federation, which until two years ago used to organise and fund her training and tours – in exchange for 60 per cent of her earnings then and 12 per cent now – would become more interested in tennis now, she said.
“China tennis hasn’t had a long time. It’s just beginning to start. I hope after three to five years maybe China will be like Russia, and have many players coming through.”
If she wins China’s first grand slam in singles, her story will probably elevate her alongside basketball star Yao Ming and hurdler Liu Xiang in the pantheon of sports heroes.
Frustrated and falling out of the top 300 rankings early in her career, Li quit the game in 2002 for two years, and went home to study journalism at a technical university. Most of her classmates had no idea she had been on the world tour.
Her tennis buddy since age 12 in Wuhan, Jiang, however, kept encouraging her to play. They married in 2006 and just this month she hired him as her coach.
“When I came back, many people thought I’m kind of old, I couldn’t do anything better in tennis. I was feeling that I’m still young. I can play many more years. For me, or for all the Asian people, they’re strong mentally.”
She also garners strength from her husband, who she says helps her to relax, even if his snoring woke her up “every hour” before yesterday’s match. She says the key in their relationship is to divide time between work and life.
“Life is life, tennis is a job. We only talk tennis when we have a match, or are practising,” she said. “We couldn’t talk tennis 24 hours a day. If you always concentrate on tennis, you get tired.”
Hoping to win on her wedding anniversary, she says she will fly back to Hong Kong and then go to Wuhan to celebrate Lunar New Year with family and friends.
If she wins tomorrow, Li will earn US$2.18 million to add to her career prize money of US$3,429,919.