Li Seeks Another Chinese Tennis First in Australian Open Final

Li Na of China
Li Na of China prepares to serve during a practice session on the twelfth day of the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne. Photographer: Torsten Blackwood/AFP/Getty Images

Li Na will try to add a Grand Slam singles title to her list of tennis firsts for China in today’s Australian Open women’s final against Kim Clijsters.

Li, the 28-year-old ninth seed, takes an 11-match winning run into the championship match at Melbourne Park. She beat Clijsters in Sydney two weeks ago to become the only Chinese player to win a first-tier event on the women’s tour.

“I beat her last time,” Li, who was introduced to tennis at age 9 after playing badminton for two years, said in a news conference. “Doesn’t mean anything in here. I know it’s a tough match.”

While Chinese women have won Olympic gold medals and Grand Slam titles in doubles, individual bests at the majors have been limited to semifinal appearances, including Li’s run alongside Zheng Jie to the last four in Melbourne a year ago.

Li, who became her country’s first top 10-ranked player on the back of that effort, went one step further two days ago, saving a match point and ousting top seed Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark. She beat No. 8 Victoria Azarenka in the fourth round and Andrea Petkovic in the quarterfinals.

Petkovic, the No. 30 seed from Germany who defeated 2008 champion Maria Sharapova in the round of 16, picked Li to win the championship.

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

Bookies’ Underdog

Bookmakers don’t agree. William Hill Plc makes Clijsters, the U.S. Open champion from Belgium, the 1-3 favorite to win her first Australian Open. That means a successful $3 bet brings in $1 and the original stake. Li is rated 12-5.

Clijsters, 27, has been to the championship match of a Grand Slam seven times before, losing her first four finals before capturing the first of three U.S. Open titles in 2005. She was the 2004 runner-up in Melbourne.

The Belgian blew a 5-0 lead against Li in Sydney and lost in straight sets. She said today’s outcome may depend on which player is quickest to establish dominance from the baseline.

“It’s going to be a matter of who’s going to be able to do that first,” Clijsters told reporters. “Who’s going to be a little bit more powerful and with the less amount of unforced errors is going to have the best chance to win.”

Clijsters, who leads Li 4-2 in career meetings, is trying to become the first woman to win two consecutive majors since Serena Williams won the 2008 U.S. Open and the 2009 Australian Open.

Since returning to the tour in August 2009 following a break in which she had a baby, Clijsters has a 26-2 record in Grand Slam matches.

With Clijsters saying that 2011 is likely to be her last full season on the tour, today may be her final chance to win the year’s opening major.

“It’s nice that I’m in this spot to reach the final, to play for the title,” Clijsters said. “It’s something that is a great feeling to have, knowing that I’m not going to be able to come here for five more years.”

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