MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — It was back in 2011 that Li Na remembers first feeling the benefits of being a big tennis star. She had just won her first Grand Slam title at the French Open and was headed back home when she saw her face on TV at the airport. Then she got upgraded to business class.
”They came up to me and said, ‘We know you. You just won the tournament.’ So (they) moved me to business class,” she said. ”I was (thinking), ‘Oh, this is not so bad.”’
Back in those days, Li also remembers feeling a lot more nervous about her big matches. Before her big win at Roland Garros, she was the Australian Open runner-up, becoming the first Chinese player to reach a Grand Slam final.
On Saturday, the 30-year-old Li returns to the Australian Open final, taking on defending champion and No. 1-ranked Victoria Azarenka.
Now seeded-sixth, Li says she’s more accustomed to the fame that comes with being one of China’s biggest sports stars. She feels more grounded for this final and less anxious.
”Last time was more exciting, (more) nervous because it was my first time to be in a final,” Li said Friday. ”But I think this time (I’m) more calmed down, more cool.”
Both women say their goal is to keep cool and not let their emotions get the best of them on the big day.
In that respect, Li enters the final with an advantage.
She is emotionally and physically fresher than Azarenka, who said she needed to recover from her stressful semifinal.
Azarenka advanced in straight sets over American teenager Sloane Stephens 6-1, 6-4 in their Thursday semifinal. But needed six match points in a victory that ended with the top-ranked player defending herself against accusations of gamesmanship by leaving the court for a medical timeout.
Serving for the match at 5-3, the 23-year-old Azarenka wasted five match points, lost her serve – then asked for a timeout. She sat with a trainer and left the court during a nine-minute medical break. She returned to close out the match by breaking Stephens’ serve.
But she raised suspicion during an interview on center court immediately after the match.
”Well, I almost did the choke of the year,” a relieved Azarenka told the crowd. ”I just felt a little bit overwhelmed. I realized I’m one step away from the final and nerves got into me for sure.”
Azarenka, who has a history of on-court tantrums, didn’t help herself in a television interview after the match.
”I couldn’t breathe. I had chest pains,” she said, when asked why she left the court. ”It was like I was getting a heart attack.”
After surviving her semifinal, Azarenka had a post-match news conference where she said she was dealing with a rib injury that made it hard to breathe. She said her earlier comments were a misunderstanding and denied that she took a medical timeout to compose herself.
Australian Open officials said the tournament doctor reported that Azarenka had left knee and rib injuries.
”Right now, I just need to calm down with the whole situation (and) make sure that my body’s right,” Azarenka said.
Li had a much more routine victory in the semifinals.
She needed just 93 minutes in Thursday’s other semifinal to power past No. 2 Maria Sharapova 6-2, 6-2. She then charmed an adoring crowd by cracking jokes during an on-court interview. She kidded about her husband’s snoring, her attempts to lose weight and the tough training by her new coach Carlos Rodriguez – before turning to the stands to thank him.
”You don’t need to push me anymore. I will push myself,” she told Rodriguez, the former coach for seven-time Grand Slam winner Justine Henin.
”I don’t know what happened today,” Li said later. ”I just came to the court feeling like, ‘OK, just do it!”
Li is in top physical form and is making a comeback to the championship weekend at a Grand Slam. After becoming the first Chinese tennis player to win at a major in 2011, she hit a slump. But she has seen rapid results in the six months since she hired Rodriguez, who seems to have a knack for guiding players past their nerves.
Li charged into the semifinals at the Australian Open without dropping a set. After beating No. 4-ranked Agnieszka Radwanska in the quarterfinals she secured herself a return to the top five in the rankings.
If the reaction at Rod Laver Arena on Thursday was any indication, the crowd favorite for the final will be Li – who won over a lot of fans in her match and perhaps even more as a result of Azarenka’s situation.
Australian crowds love their defending champions, but dislike any whiff of bad sportsmanship. Accusations against Azarenka immediately surged through social media platforms.
By reaching the final, Azarenka retains her No. 1 ranking, but has said that’s not her focus.
”I’m really hungry to defend my title,” she said. ”That is my first goal … to win the tournament.”
If she masters her jitters and comes into the final focused, Li will have a tough fight.
Azarenka leads 5-4 in career matches, including the last four times they’ve played. However, Li has a better record at Grand Slams, having beaten Azarenka at the 2011 Australian Open before reaching the final that year. Li also beat the Belarusian later that year at the French Open before winning the title.
”What should I worry about?” Li said when asked if she was nervous for the match. ”I was working so hard in winter training. I think now everything is coming back to me.”
On the day of the final, here’s her plan: ”I come to the court, take my racket and enjoy the tennis.”