Li Na Beats Wozniacki to Face Clijsters at Open

China's Li Na celebrates her match point win over Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark during their women's semifinal at the Australian Open tennis championships in Melbourne, Australia, Jan. 27, 2011.
AP Photo
MELBOURNE - Kim Clijsters advanced to the Australian Open final with a comfortable win over Vera Zvonareva and will play for the title against Li Na, who saved a match point en route to becoming the first Chinese player to reach a Grand Slam championship final.

Li rallied to win the first of the women's semifinals 3-6, 7-5, 6-3 Thursday after top-ranked Caroline Wozniacki served for the match with a 5-4 lead in the second set.

U.S. Open champion Clijsters dictated play from the start against No. 2-ranked 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." she said.

"I've been on tour a while and played big matches. I think that definitely helps me now that I'm a little older."

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.

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.

Rafael Nadal's bid to be the first man since 1969 to hold all four major titles at once ended in a 6-4, 6-2, 6-3 quarterfinal loss to David Ferrer on Wednesday night.

Nadal struggled with a left thigh injury and needed treatment throughout the match, but was determined not to withdraw because he had had to retire in his previous quarterfinal here against Andy Murray in 2010 and said he hated the feeling.

"It's a victory for me. But it's not a victory really," Ferrer said.

Ferrer will meet 2010 finalist Murray in the semifinals. It was Murray who was leading Nadal by two sets and a break last year when the Spaniard withdrew with an injured right knee.

Murray had a struggle on his hands Wednesday, constantly trying to find his rhythm against Alexandr Dolgopolov before advancing 7-5, 6-3, 6-7 (3), 6-3.

Murray lost the final here in straight sets last year to Roger Federer. He's a more experienced and accomplished player this year. And there's no certainty Federer will be in his path, anyway.

The defending champion plays his semifinal Thursday night against Novak Djokovic, who beat him in the semifinals here in 2008 en route to the title. No. 3-ranked Djokovic also beat Federer in the semifinals of the last U.S. Open, after saving two match points.