Will it be third time lucky for Li?
BY THE time the women's semi-finals started yesterday, Li Na had become the favourite.
That was not necessarily a good thing at this Australian Open, where the top contenders (Serena Williams, Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova) had already been dispatched.
On the one hand, Li, 31, was the only Grand Slam champion left in the women's bracket. On the other hand, she had reached the final here in 2011 and last year, won the first set in each of those matches and faltered twice, against Kim Clijsters and Azarenka. There were more than a few tears.
In her way this time stood Eugenie Bouchard, a 19-year-old Canadian tournament darling with her own Australian cheering section (Genie's Army) and a Twitter post yesterday from pop star Justin Bieber that simply read: "Good luck :)".
Not only was Bouchard the Women's Tennis Association's newcomer of the year last year, but she also played here not like an awestruck teenager, but like a future champion.
Li, the French Open champion in 2011, squashed any Bouchard aspirations early.
In the first three games, she won all but two points. She won the first five games and the first set in 28 minutes, winning the match, 6-2, 6-4.
It was fair, then, to wonder if all the attention her run to the semi-final garnered had made too much of an impact on Bouchard. Li had been here, this close to a final, in a contest of this magnitude.
On match point, Bouchard clipped the net with one shot that bounced over and landed on the sideline. Li reached the ball and rocketed a backhand crosscourt for a winner.
In her post-match interview, the Chinese player waved at Genie's Army, the group of young Australians who had adopted Bouchard over these last two weeks. "Sorry about that," she said.
The women's semi-finals featured players from China (Li), Canada (Bouchard), Slovakia (Dominika Cibulkova) and Poland (Agnieszka Radwanska). One will be crowned the Australian Open champion for the first time.
Radwanska and Cibulkova, who faced each other in the second semi-final, are long-time friends. They grew up in neighbouring countries and played each other often at junior tournaments. In six matches before yesterday's 6-1, 6-2 loss, Radwanska had won five times.
Li nearly lost in the third round here, down match point to the Czech Republic's Lucie Safarova, but she saved that point and cruised in her next two matches, losing a total of six games.
Bouchard turned on her aggression in the second set, after a listless first. Li wanted to move the young Canadian, to force her to hit on the run, off-balance. Li smacked 35 winners.
At one point, she held an index finger to her mouth, as if to quiet the Bouchard portion of the crowd.
Afterward, she credited her coach, Carlos Rodriguez, whom she partnered with in July 2012. She said he had helped with the mental aspects of her game.
"Last time was a little bit tough, so I will try this time to make one more step," she said in a courtside interview.
"I think, after working with the coach, it's not only about my technique, but I'm also playing much stronger on court."
Now, she finds herself in a familiar position, in the Australian Open women's final tomorrow and, in an unfamiliar one, as the favourite.