Australian Open: Li has found new way for final flurry

Australian Open: Li has found new way for final flurry

AT 31, straying gently into tennis' twilight, Li Na already has a second career option before her. On the early evidence of her semi-final on Thursday - she was 5-0 in 14 minutes - she is well qualified to work in an architect's office. Her strokes are like precise, sharp lines, her points resemble detailed sketches, her games are deftly designed.

If she can find this form on Saturday versus Dominika Cibulkova, she will not lose her third Australian Open final.

In an activity which embraces youth, age is this Open's fascination.

Roger Federer is being resurrected at 32 and Li refined at 31. If the young can possess no fear, the old, who keep an eye on calendars, have a more telling desperation.

Armed with it, in her first five matches, Li defeated players aged 16, 16, 26, 25, 31 and yesterday Eugenie Bouchard, who is 19.

The Canadian's welcome to court was three Chinese backhands - a hissing mix of pace, angle, depth - so majestic that later Carlos Rodriguez, a kind philosopher who coached Justine Henin before Li, sighed when I asked whose backhand was better. Henin's single-handed whip he said was more "strategic", Li's more "important to her game".

Bouchard, who lost 2-6, 4-6, would agree. She tasted 16 backhand winners and in her first three service games won not a point. This wasn't a semi-final, it was a geometry class for a Canadian conducted in Chinese. It was not the only lesson of the day.

In the local paper, Bouchard's ambitious agent noted that his client, "marketability-wise... can be the most famous tennis player in the world". More so, he noted, than even Maria Sharapova. Possibly he forgot the Russian won a Grand Slam title at 17. Either way, even as Bouchard is striking and her racket talks an aggressive game, it seemed a haste for celebrityhood which was unseemly.

Li's following is first built on talent and record. Three Open finals, one French. On court, she wears a simple white top, a functional skirt, no tassels, no beads, an unadorned champion whose game is an advertisement in itself.

Not that she is coy, but you can only charm through an on-court microphone if you win.

Li is unafraid of speaking English, independent in thought, amusing in interviews. Yesterday, relating her conversation with Rodriguez the night before, she noted: "He ask, how I feel. I say, nervous. He say, congratulations, at least you normal people. If you cannot feel anything, I worry."

Even as she arrives from a grand sporting nation, Li is currently China's most widely celebrated athlete. Lin Dan's record is more persuasively brilliant, Yao Ming more loved in America, Liu Xiang more feted during an Olympics, but she spends an entire year making global news and impact.

During her last two matches at Rod Laver Arena, there were sponsor signs for Jacob's Creek and ANZ in Chinese lettering. People, they know, are watching and officials confirmed that this year China comprises 33 per cent of the Open's global broadcast audience.

If Li couldn't play as she does, in bursts of belligerence, no one would care. On Thursday she did and they came with fluttering flags and calls of "jia you". Then, at 0-5, Bouchard showed off a delightful streak of stubbornness.

She lost the first set but, in the second, normal service was resumed which is code for women's players not being able to hold service.

Five breaks arrived in six games and in the final Li will need to hold her focus tightly. Her occasional wanders away from consistency is why she is a little distance away from truly great.

Still, courtside, Rodriguez did not panic. "She could not continue like the first five games, but at least she don't lose her mind in difficult moment". Li, he understood, was tested not threatened.

In the final, Cibulkova, who compensates for lack of elevation (161cm) with an abundance of zip, will be a hardier foe. In her busy feet is suggested an implanted battery that rapidly recharges. The Slovakian, seeded 20th, has sent home the No. 16, No. 3, No. 11 and on Thursday the No. 5, Agnieszka Radwanska, 6-1, 6-2. Li at No.4 will neatly complete her set.

Historically, Li has found her fluent self at this Open yet not her winning self. Like her backhands which skim over the netcord on their way to brilliant destinations, the margins of defeat have been fine. In both her finals, in 2013 and 2011, she lost in three sets; in both her finals, her victors wept and to lose again would seem a crying shame. As Li said: "I try to take one more step."

Now a mature player, Li resembles an old article of beautiful clothing: she can't be fully redesigned only gently tinkered with.

So Rodriguez, like a nimble tailor, has made "subtle" alterations - she is "more stable", he said, has more "emotional endurance", hits with "more spin".

Is she ready, he was asked. "I don't know. I hope so. But I think she deserves it."

Cibulkova's coach, whose charge comes from a tiny nation of five million and is chasing her own history, may say the same.

Neither will be right. Hard-luck stories are sweet, but the only one who deserves final victory is the one who seizes it.

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