China's Li Na dispatched another seeded player from the Australian Open on Tuesday to secure her second straight semifinal berth, and her opponent said she was the woman to beat.
Li is carrying a heavy burden of expectation that a Grand Slam win will inspire a rush of new players from China, where sporting success is considered a matter of national pride but where table tennis and badminton remain far more widespread than her sport. She is already China's leading player, cracking the top 10 rankings last year with three singles titles and reaching her first Grand Slam semifinal at Melbourne Park by beating current No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki and Venus Williams before losing to Serena Williams.
She beat Kim Clijsters - one of the top favorites at Melbourne Park - earlier this month at a warm-up tournament in Sydney, fighting back from 0-5 in the first set to win in straight sets. She beat No. 8 Victoria Azarenka to reach the fourth round, and Andrea Petkovic in Tuesday's quarterfinal 6-2, 6-4, prompting the the 30th-seeded Petkovic to say that her Chinese opponent was her tip to win the tournament.
No so fast, said Li, who will play either Wozniacki or No. 6 Francesca Schiavone in the semis, with Clijsters or No. 2 Vera Zvonareva on the other side of the draw.
"I wish I can win the tournament," Li said, when told of Petkovic's prediction. "But if I need to win tournament, still have two step I need to do. (It's) always easy to say something." Li, 28, has become a crowd favorite in Melbourne with a demeanor that is all business on court but that quickly turns to snappy one-liners in broken English that reveals a quick wit and sharp sense of humor.
Li's lighthearted remark that her coach and husband Jiang Shan's biggest influence was to promise to let her loose with their credit card if she won, has become a running joke of the tournament. She was asked courtside Tuesday if her quarterfinal victory was enough to win a shopping spree, or whether she needed to go all the way to the championship.
"No, end of the tournament," she said with a smile, pointing toward her support box, where Jiang and her team had been a minute earlier but the seats were now empty. "You can see now - the credit card, he just left, you can't find him anymore." Petkovic, who beat former No. 1 Maria Sharapova and had a victory against Venus Williams when Williams retired with an injury to reach the quarters, said Li was unflappable and gave her no chances at all on Tuesday, serving no double faults, keeping her lively footwork and blasting deep, flat attacking shots.
"She has this sneaky aggressive play, I would call it," Petkovic said, admiringly. "I think she played really well. I think she's going to win the tournament."
Li gave up tennis for two years to do media studies at university after becoming disillusioned with her lack of rankings success and re-entered the game in 2004.
"After two years, I was feeling like, OK, I'm grown up, I should stand up to try my best." she said.
Now, she's playing better and is far happier on the court than she used to be. And with every game, the prospect of a new Chinese hero grows closer.
"Wow, amazing for me, amazing for my team," Li said Tuesday, asked what it would mean to win the tournament. "Maybe amazing for China tennis also."