|Vera Zvonareva (right) congratulates Kim Clijsters after their semifinal match at the Australian Open on Thursday. (REUTERS/Daniel Munoz)
MELBOURNE, Australia -- Li Na became the first Chinese player ever to advance to a Grand Slam singles final, rallying to beat top-ranked Caroline Wozniacki, 3-6, 7-5, 6-3, in a dramatic Australian Open semifinal.
Li, seeded ninth, beat Wozniacki for the second straight year at this tournament, but this time had to fight off a match point and overcome 51 unforced errors.
The 28-year-old Li broke Wozniacki's serve three straight times in the final set to move her into Saturday night's final against reigning U.S. Open champion Kim Clijsters. The third-seeded Belgian blew past second-seeded Russian Vera Zvonareva, 6-3, 6-3 in the other semifinal Thursday.
The Li-Wozniacki match, which lasted just over 2 1/2 hours, looked to be in favor of Wozniacki in the third set, especially after she grabbed a 2-1 lead after breaking serve. However, Li broke at love, part of a three-game winning streak. The second break in that run moved it to 4-2.
Wozniacki broke back, but then hit a return into the net for a 5-3 lead for Li. The Chinese standout, who lost to Serena Williams in two tiebreak sets in the 2010 semifinals in Melbourne, then finished off the shocker when Wozniacki hit a forehand return wide.
"Maybe we should be looking around tennis," Li said of the sport in her home country. "The better we do, more people come watch, more people pay attention."
Wozniacki lauded Li for playing aggressively, taking balls early.
"She's on a really good roll at the moment; she has the confidence," Wozniacki said. "Yeah, she's definitely playing good tennis."
Wozniacki picked up a break when Li double faulted to moved to a 4-2 lead, on the way to a 39-minute completion of the opening set.
The Dane looked to be in control, gaining an early break in the second thanks to another double fault from Li. Wozniacki then held serve for a 3-1 advantage, but couldn't sustain the edge despite moving to a 4-2 cushion.
Li made an incredible rally from 0-40 down in the eighth game to break serve to draw even in the set at 4-4. Wozniacki broke right back, but failed to finish off her opponent. Li fought off one match point and then broke Wozniacki with a forehand winner. Li then held serve at love for a 6-5 lead before giving away a set point on a wide return. The Chinese star, though, sent the match to a third set when Wozniacki double faulted.
"I made a lot of mistakes in the first set and also in the beginning of the second set," Li said. "After I saved the match point, I was thinking, 'OK, now I have a chance.' It's tough playing against her."
"Sometimes in matches or in tennis it's one ball that can change everything," Wozniacki said. "I didn't get my match point. From then on, well, she was just better at the most important points. She won the most important one, which was the last one."
Clijsters needed just 73 minutes to advance to the final by overpowering the runner-up from the previous two Grand Slam tournaments. In a rematch from the 2010 U.S. Open final, Clijsters proved too dominant. She got the break needed when Zvonareva sent a forehand wide for a service break and a 5-3 lead in the opening set. After finishing off the set with a slam winner, she took advantage of another Zvonareva mistake for a service break and a 2-1 edge.
Despite facing a 5-3 deficit, Zvonareva had a chance to get back in the match, but the Russian blew a pair of break point chances. The string of four straight unforced errors all but handed Clijsters the match. The Belgian then finished off the encounter by placing a soft return into an open space close to the sideline.
"I tried really hard every point," Clijsters said. "Vera is a tough player and I faced some tough matches last year. I had to be on top of my game."
Zvonareva beat Clijsters in three of their four meetings last year, but now the Belgian owns a 7-3 lifetime mark in their head-to-head series.
"I tried to hang in there," said Zvonareva. "I knew what I had to do, but I think she was executing her shots really well."
Clijsters will face Li for the second time this month. In the tournament before the Australian Open, Li earned a 7-6 (7-3), 6-3 in the final of an event in Sydney. Clijsters will try for her fourth Grand Slam singles title with the other three coming at the U.S. Open. She's into her eighth Grand Slam singles final and second at the Australian Open. Clijsters lost the 2004 championship match to Justine Henin, who just announced her sudden retirement.
Clijsters, who has yet to drop a set at this 2011 opening Grand Slam, is after her 41st career title. Li has four championships to her credit.