It is the meeting of polar opposites: the established grand slam champion against the next generation; the cheery, open and completely unflappable veteran against the controlled, restrained and wary teenager; the woman who is perfectly happy in herself, her life and her position against the rookie who is still finding her place in the world. In other words: Li Na against Eugenie Bouchard in Thursday’s Australian Open semifinal.
The arrival of Bouchard on the big stage has caused quite a stir. The WTA’s newcomer of the year last season, she has now backed that up with her first appearance in a major semifinal and earned herself more than enough headlines for the quality of her play. But the tennis is only a part of the fame game, and with every round, so Bouchard’s following has grown.
On this very website, the interest in Canada’s new star is way beyond that for any other player. Three times as many people log on to get Bouchard updates as do for Li, while she leaves Rafa and Roger trailing in her wake with more than 100,000 more followers.
But as her band of admirers grows and grows (her on-court cheerleaders here are called the Genie Army), not all of them are watching her topspin forehand. True, she has a game to make her peers sit up and take notice, but she also has the sort of looks that will earn her a fortune over the course of her career. As a result, Bouchard is being catapulted to superstardom.
For most young women, it would be an awful lot to take in, but not for our heroine. There is an icy steel in her character and she is taking in all this hullaballoo as if it is the most natural thing in the world.
“Tennis is something I've been doing since I was five years old and working my whole life for and sacrificing a lot of things for,” she said calmly.
“So it's not exactly a surprise. I always expect myself to do well.
“I'm just happy to have, you know, gone through this step. I'm not done. I have a match on Thursday. I'm just looking forward to that.
“I just try to take it in stride. Like I said earlier, it's not a huge surprise to me because I always believe in my skills and things like that. It's something I've been working a long time for. It's not really sudden or anything like that. I just want to keep going. If there's more attention, well, that's a good thing.”
Blimey, she is doing a good job of keeping her emotions under control. She will not turn 20 until next month and yet she speaks like an old pro, one used to the machinations of the media and the demands of the great god television. She also seems to take herself very seriously and does not take kindly to frivolity.
When one poor hack asked her “Why the hell do you like Justin Bieber?” (a perfectly reasonable question for anyone over the age of 16 to ask), she shot him down in flames. “There was a swear word in that question. I don't think I'm going to answer that.” No, Bouchard is definitely not your normal 19-year-old.
It has been a while since Canada had a female player to cheer so, back home, people are entitled to get a bit over-excited. But if anyone thinks that having 35 million people (the population of the maple leaf country) watching your every move is pressure, imagine what it must be like for Li. 35 million? Pah! She has 1.32 billion more than that back in China watching what she is up to. Now that is pressure.
Well, she has 1.32 billion minus one watching back home. Li may be the most famous Chinese player, she may be the most successful Chinese player, but her mum still refuses to watch her matches. Never been to one, has no intention of coming to one. And that is never going to change.
“Even my mom, she know I was tennis player, but she never come to watch when I was playing,” Li said with a shrug. “She really wasn’t interested about the sport. Even when I play Olympics in China, in Beijing, she even didn't come.
“I invite her so many times. She's like, No, I'm not interested. I say, Okay, go home. Stay home. I think it’s because she didn't have big heart to watch me play. Maybe if I play match, maybe make her nervous. She can choose which way is best for her.”
There is something refreshingly normal about Li, from the way she admits to driving her coach nuts to the way she hen-pecks her husband. He takes a lot of stick, does poor Jiang Shan. Because many Westerners find Chinese names difficult to pronounce, he picked an English name for himself – “Dennis” – and these days he plays Dennis to his wife’s Mrs T. He knows his place, does Dennis.
In the popularity stakes, though, it all comes down to age. Those of us who are just a wee bit older (and who may or may not have had to Google Justin Bieber before we wrote) may lean towards Li; those who are busy Googling Mrs T and Dennis as we speak, may lean towards Bouchard. They both play mighty fine tennis, so may the best woman win.