MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — None of the drama-packed story lines coming into the Australian Open involved the Great Wall of China.
Li Na wrote that one all by herself. The 28-year-old already made history by becoming the first Chinese tennis player to reach a Grand Slam final.
That will become a footnote if she wins the Australian Open on Saturday, which would make her the first Chinese player — and first Asian — to win a major singles title. Her only obstacle is U.S. Open champion Kim Clijsters.
Li returned to the sport in 2004, after spending two years in college in a media-studies program. She took the rare step of breaking away from the state-run sports system in 2008 and hired her own coach. At the end of the 2010 season, she replaced former coach Thomas Hogstedt with her husband, Jiang Shan.
She says her greatest strength is mental.
"Right now, I just feel more happy on the court," Li said.
On paper, the outcome would appear to be clear-cut. Clijsters is a year younger than Li but has three U.S. Open trophies among her 40 career titles. She is a former No. 1 who is ranked No. 3 and easily beat second-ranked Vera Zvonareva in their semifinal 6-3, 6-3.
In the absence of defending champion Serena Williams, out with a foot injury, Clijsters has been a favorite to win. She was the only Grand Slam winner to qualify for the women’s semifinals and returns to the Australian Open final for the first time since her loss to Justine Henin in 2004.
Li has won four titles in her career and has no experience navigating the inevitable jitters of playing in a Grand Slam final. Yet she is building a steady reputation for incredible comebacks.
In Thursday’s semifinal, Li saved a match point against top-ranked Caroline Wozniacki and rallied from 5-4 down in the second set to win 3-6, 7-5, 6-3. The win eliminated one of the tournament’s strongest story lines, with Wozniacki trying to prove she deserves the top-ranking by winning her first Grand Slam final.
Li was asked how she overcame the 20-year-old Dane, who has been called a "backboard" and a "wall" because of her unrelenting ability to get balls back into play.
"I think Chinese wall (is) more famous," said Li, whose quick-witted quips have amused the center court crowds in Melbourne.
In an on-court interview after her win, Li announced to the packed Rod Laver Arena that her husband — who is also her coach — had kept her up all night because of his snoring. The interviewer then congratulated Li for winning on her fifth wedding anniversary.
Li looked stunned.
"Is it today?" a wide-eyed Li asked to laughter from the crowd. Then she turned to her husband in the stands and suggested it was still two days away. "I think it’s the 29th?" The matter is still unresolved.
Clijsters knows the feeling of being ahead and watching Li come back.
Li’s modest collection of titles includes a win over Clijsters two weeks ago at the Sydney International final. Li rallied from a 5-0 deficit in the first set to beat the Belgian in straight sets and win the Australian Open tuneup tournament.
"She’s playing with, obviously, a lot of confidence. So am I," said Clijsters, adding that the final "should be a good one."
Clijsters still leads with four wins out of their six previous matches. She complimented Li by saying the two "are very similar type of players." Both have heavy groundstrokes and like to dictate points. Both move well, are fit and fun to watch.
They have something else in common. Both retired from tennis for about two years and realized in their time off how much they love the game.
Clijsters came back in 2009 after 2 1/2 years off, during which she got married and had a child. Almost immediately, she won the U.S. Open and defended her title at Flushing Meadows in 2010.
Li has been asked repeatedly in Melbourne if she feels the weight of a billion people’s expectations on her shoulders. She typically shrugs and offers the same answer. Tennis is typically ignored in China, where table tennis and badminton reign supreme, she says.
Winning the Australian Open, Li said Thursday, would be "good for my tennis career, of course. Good for me. Good for my team. Maybe good for China tennis. I’m not sure. Maybe."
In China, where her match was broadcast live, the reaction was more ecstatic.
"Li Na has made history!" proclaimed a sports anchor for China’s state broadcaster CCTV. "Such an exciting match! But it really was like a dream."
The official Xinhua News Agency said a Grand Slam win by Li "would also inspire a rush of new tennis players in China."