Kim Clijsters, Li Na set to meet in final

Updated: January 27, 2011, 9:35 AM ET
Associated Press

MELBOURNE, Australia -- Kim Clijsters cruised into the Australian Open final and will play for the title against Li Na, who overcame top-ranked Caroline Wozniacki to become the first Chinese player to reach the championship match at a Grand Slam.

Li rallied to win the first of the women's semifinals 3-6, 7-5, 6-3 on Thursday, saving match point when Wozniacki was serving at 5-4 in the second set.

U.S. Open champion Clijsters dictated play from the start against No. 2-ranked Vera Zvonareva and won it 6-3, 6-3 -- repeating the result of their U.S. Open final.

Zvonareva had reached the previous two finals at the majors. And she had two break points in the eighth game of the second set but squandered both and Clijsters won four straight points to make it 5-3, then served out for the match.

Clijsters was the only Grand Slam winner to qualify for the semifinals.

The 27-year-old Belgian is back into the Australian Open final for the first time since her loss to Justine Henin in 2004. She has won the U.S. Open three times -- including both since she returned from retirement in 2009 -- but has yet to win a major outside American soil.

She attributed her recent success to her ability to "rise on the occasion" -- learned after losing the first four Grand Slam finals she contested.

"I've been on tour for a while and I've played big matches and not always won them, but although I've lost them sometimes they really do teach you a lot of things," she said. "And that that has definitely helped me now that I'm a little older."

[+] EnlargeLi Na
AP Photo/Rob GriffithLi Na became the first Chinese player to reach a Grand Slam singles final.

Li is into her first major final, but is growing in confidence after coming off a comeback win over the No. 1-ranked player and her victory over Clijsters in the final of the tuneup event at Sydney, where she came back from 5-0 down in the first set to win it in straight sets.

Wozniacki, playing at a major for the first time with the No. 1 ranking, had match point at 5-4 and 40-30 in the second set before Li rallied. Another 66 minutes later, Li served and won on her first match point.

Li lost to Serena Williams in two tiebreak sets in the semifinals here last year in her previous best run at a major.

Her trip to the final is just another first for Li, who was the first Chinese player to win a tour-level title and the first to enter the top 10. She is also the first player from Asia to reach a Grand Slam singles final.

"I'm so happy I can be the first Chinese player to come to a final -- I always do the first one!" she said in a lighthearted, courtside interview in which she joked about losing sleep on the eve of the match because her coach-husband Shan Jiang was snoring.

Asked what motivated her comeback, she deadpanned: "Prize money."

Li looked down and out after the first set, when she made 17 unforced errors and struggled for consistency. She finished with 51 unforced errors, but that was a reflection of her pushing Wozniacki to the extremes.

She said it was important for the development of tennis in China, and joked that it could give the sport some profile for more than a month.

"Good for my tennis career. Good for me. Good for my team. Maybe good for China tennis," she said. "Of course this is good experience for my whole life, because many player, they play long time, but they never come to the final for a Grand Slam.

"Today I get it, so feeling I can do well in next two days."

Wozniacki could have ended the match in 1 hour, 29 minutes, but Li hit a forehand down the line, forcing an error and saving match point. It sparked a revival. She broke in that game to make it 5-5, held at love and then broke her Danish rival's serve again -- after Wozniacki three times had game points to force a tiebreaker -- to make it even at one set apiece.

They traded breaks twice in the third set before Li held her nerve to finish it off when Wozniacki miscued a forehand.

The 20-year-old Wozniacki was under pressure from her opening match in Australia, with critics questioning the legitimacy of the No. 1 ranking she gained last October despite her never having won a major. She lost the 2009 U.S. Open final to Clijsters, but has never returned to a final.

Wozniacki ensured she'll retain the No. 1 ranking by reaching the semifinals -- after coming back from a set and a break down to beat French Open champion Francesca Schiavone in three sets -- but she'll no doubt be answering questions about her ranking for tournaments to come.

"I had a match point and I didn't take it," Wozniacki said. "Sometimes in tennis it's one ball that can change everything.

"I didn't get my match point. From then on, well, she was just better at the most important points -- she won the most important one, which was the last one.

"It's quite difficult to get through this one ... Hopefully I'll get many more chances in the future."


Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press