Two-time Australian Open finalist Li Na has faced plenty of up-and-comers in her career, but perhaps hasn't played many with the talent level of ITF world junior No. 1 Belinda Bencic, who pushed her very hard in the second set of her 6-0 7-6(5) second round victory on Wednesday.
World No. 3 Li zoned in on her 16-year-old foe in the first set, while the Swiss took time to get used to the spacious court at Rod Laver Arena. But in the second set Bencic, showed just why she is considered one of the WTA’s most promising players, going toe-to-toe with the former Roland Garros champion from inside the baseline.
While Bencic is still physically maturing, she showed off a hard and effective serve, power from both her forehand and backhand wings as a well as unique sense of anticipation, which may come from having been taught the game and trained by former world No. 1 Martina Hingis’ mother, Melanie Molitor, since the age of four.
“She played exactly like Martina Hingis,” Li said.
"More flat [serve than Hingis] and deuce side was more slice. [She has] more control and I didn't like the way she's hitting the ball today, because she was use a lot of my power to move me and running a lot on the court.”
Bencic won both the Roland Garros and Wimbledon junior tiles last season as well as winning four ITF circuit titles.
At the start of this season, she played an exhibition against Hingis in Hobart before heading to Melbourne, where she qualified and then took down 43-year-old Japanese legend Kimiko-Date Krumm in the first round.
Once she got her feet wet at Rod Laver Arena, Bencic seemed to enjoy the occasion, occasionally smiling after Hawk-eye challenges and after a few of the brilliant winners that came off of her racquet.
She managed to break Li to 4-3 in the second set, but China’s top player locked down and broke right back with a series of hefty groundstrokes to the corners.
Bencic hung tough though and managed to scrape into the tiebreaker. She appeared to have an opening after Li double faulted to 4-4, but then Li forced Bencic into a forehand error with a deep blast crosscourt.
The teenager then pushed Li into a backhand error to knot the tiebreaker at 5-5, but Li responded brilliantly, charging ahead, crushing a forehand swing volley and then punching away a standard volley to gain a 6-5 edge. On match point, the 31-year-old took her gloves off and rocked an inside out backhand winner.
“I think I showed also in qualifying I can beat the qually players here and also some people in the main draw." Bencic said.
“And now it's great that I made the experience with 16 years, so maybe later or the next match I can show what I learned from this experience so I will not be so nervous and I will not miss the chances.”
Li ended the match with 30 winners to just 12 from her steady foe.
Last year, Li overwhelmed 2008 champion Maria Sharapova before going down in a close final to Victoria Azarenka.
She will play the Czech Lucie Safarova in the next round.