In perhaps the best match she’s played in a year and a half, China’s Li Na crushed No. 2 Maria Sharapova 6-2 6-2 on Thursday to move into the Australian Open final for the second time in her career.
In an astonishing display of all-round power and know how, Li never allowed the free-swinging Russian to gain a toehold in the match, consistently attacking her taller foe with well-placed serves, huge returns and lethal groundstrokes.
The 30-year-old said it was as perfectly as she has ever played.
“After 20 years, first time in my life,” she said.
“Beginning of the match, I was nervous. I was happy I come back to semis again, but for some reason I really want to win the match. I don't know what happened today. Just come to the court, feeling like, ‘Okay, just do it’.”
Li finished the one hour and 33 minute contest with 21 winners to 18 unforced errors, and she forced Sharapova into 21 errors.
For her part, 2012 finalist Sharapova could never find her rhythm and finished with just 17 winners and 32 unforced errors, while forcing Li into 23 errors.
Given that Sharapova had only lost nine games in five matches coming into the contest, she was considered a heavy favorite by some, but Li has been playing extremely well since the summer began, winning the title in Shenzhen, reaching the semis in Sydney and, in Melbourne, taking out three successive seeded players without losing a set: Sorana Cirstea, Julia Goerges and Agnieszka Radwanska, who was undefeated on the season entering their quarterfinal.
Li had lost her last three matches to Sharapova entering Thursday’s semifinal, but with new coach Carlos Rodriguez, the former coach of Justine Henin, in her corner, she played a very smart match. The Chinese frequently hit behind Sharapova, stretching her way out on her forehand side so that she couldn’t generate enough power, and feasting on every second serve that she could.
Li, who reached the Australian Open final two years ago, won 18 of the Russian’s 24 second serve points.
“Maybe like before I was angry or something,” Li said.
“Start this year, I try to cool down on the court. Like Hollywood. You don't have to show opponent what are you thinking. A little bit like Hollywood, but not real.”
Irrespective of whether she had the proper strategy or not, Li had to execute on the big points, and that she did, breaking Sharapova five times, and defending six of the seven break points on her own serve.
Sharapova fought gamely in the second set in trying to turn the match around, but the sixth seed broke her to 3-2 when Sharapova erred on a backhand, and then she failed to break Li in the next game when holding a break point when her foe ripped a backhand winner.
Li broke Sharapova to 5-2 when the Australian Open 2008 champion committed three straight unforced errors. She then efficiently closed the contest out with a 160km/h ace before Sharapova committed an unforced backhand error.
The 2011 Roland Garros winner will play the defending champion Victoria Azarenka in the final.
“I mean, 2011, first time to the Grand Slam final, I was a little bit shocked because I didn't know what I should do,” Li said.
“Also, no one tell me what I should do on the court. But this time I got more experience, so I think should be better.”