MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Li Na will hope to keep her head in check and feet on the ground during her third Australian Open final after her coach Carlos Rodriguez helped calm her for a thumping victory over teenager Eugenie Bouchard in the semi-finals on Thursday.
Runner-up last year and in 2011, the battle-hardened Chinese smashed the Canadian sensation 6-2 6-4 in a sun-drenched Rod Laver Arena and will battle Slovakia’s Dominika Cibulkova, the 20th seed, for the trophy.
Of all her three runs to the decider, the 2011 French Open champion has her best chance of casting off her ‘one-slam wonder’ status at the ripe age of 31.
First-time nerves cost her dearly when she was overhauled by Belgian Kim Clijsters in 2011, and last year it was two unlucky tumbles on the hardcourt against Victoria Azarenka that took their toll on Asia’s first grand slam singles winner.
“I think it’s the third time, so pretty close to the trophy,” said Li, who rolled her ankle against Azarenka and blacked out for a moment when she thumped her head in the second fall last year.
“At least I’ll try to not fall down this time, because last year in the final I think I played well but I only can say I was unlucky because of falling down twice,” she told reporters.
The only slip-up Li had against the highly-fancied Bouchard was on serve in the second set when she was broken early to fall behind 2-0.
The more emotional Li of yesteryear might have promptly fallen into a deep hole, but instead she rattled off three straight games and marched to a confidence-building win in under 90 minutes.
Since taking on Rodriguez, the former mentor to Belgian great Justine Henin, Li has made the quarter-finals or better of four of the last five grand slams and the Argentine has earned his money in this tournament.
Rodriguez gave the Chinese a stern lecture about her goals following her tight third-round win over Lucie Safarova in which she played erratically and was saved by a ‘Hawk-eye’ review for a close line call on match-point.
Li responded by hammering her next two opponents in straight sets.
Suffering a bout of nerves when preparing for the Bouchard semi-final, Rodriguez rode to the rescue again.
”When I was talking to him last night, I think he saw something, so he was asking how I feel. I say, ‘nervous’. He says, ‘Congratulations. At least you’re normal. If you cannot feel anything, I worry. Let’s talk right now.
”‘Just don’t think too much. Just try to play tennis. You have to understand or know why you are here, what you have to do.
“After the talk, I felt my mind open and was feeling better. I don’t have to hold pressure only by myself.”
With that in mind, Li bashed three backhand winners to break Bouchard in the first game and lost only three points to the shell-shocked Canadian on the way to a 5-0 lead.
Bouchard dug in to break Li early in the second set, but was quickly overhauled as the hard-hitting Chinese rollicked to victory with 35 winners.
After her earlier win over Safarova, Li remarked that only “five centimeters” and the Hawk-eye review separated her from an early trip to the airport.
“I will send her a smile,” Li said of the unlucky Czech on Thursday. “It’s all I can do.”
Additional writing by Greg Stutchbury in Wellington; Editing by John O'Brien/Patrick Johnston