Tough As Nails: Li Reaches Third Australian Open Semifinal By Upsetting Radwanska

Li Na showed why she has cast a long shadow over Melbourne in recent years.

A battle between two top-eight women opened the quarterfinal action on Rod Laver Arena today.  Although she had lost to world #4 Agnieszka Radwanska last week, 2011 Australian Open finalist Li Na eked out a 7-5 6-3 victory tenser than the scoreline showed, extending her record this year to 13-1 and prolonging a recent run of success in Melbourne.

Showing what an evenly balanced encounter lay ahead, the first game lasted nearly 13 minutes as Li barely managed to hold while saving two break points.  Unable to hit through Radwanska from the baseline, she obtained great success by closing into the net behind deep approaches, and she redirected the ball down both sidelines impressively.  The stingy Pole refused to let her off the hook unless she produced not just one or two but several excellent shots strung together, and Li accumulated eight unforced errors before the game ended in an ominous sign for the future.

Also extended to deuce in her first service game, Radwanska benefited from two netted groundstrokes by her opponent on the last two points, including a strange miss just inches from the net of what looked like an easy putaway.  The third game initially looked like an easier game for Li when she won the first two points with crisp backhands, but she then dropped three straight with unforced errors to fall behind break point yet again.  Radwanska issued one of her rare donations on the next point, an uncharacteristic backhand error, before her opponent tossed away the next two for an early break.

An unwise net approach dumped the Pole in an early hole on serve a game later, allowing Li plenty of time to target the pass.  Surprisingly, Radwanska lost her serve at love in the first short game of the match.  A fine inside-out forehand erased a break point in the Chinese star’s next service game, but an errant backhand down the line yielded a second.  Neither woman could find an easy route to a service hold, however, and Li recorded the fourth straight break of a match in which the returner had won more points than the server.   Veering typically from the amazing to the abysmal, the former Roland Garros champion won four straight points from 0-30 down to hold serve without facing a break point for the first time.

The pressure now lay on Radwanska, serving at 3-4 after winning two total points in her previous two service games.  Despite losing the first point, she did earn the quick hold, punctuated by her first ace.  A dreadful game from Li that consisted of three unforced errors and a double fault gave Radwanska the opportunity to serve for the opening set.  Hardly a secure proposition considering her struggles on serve before then, that effort went poorly from the outset with a botched challenge preceding a weak second serve and an ill-advised approach.  A second straight break at love evened the match at 5-5 with three breaks apiece between the women.

On a key point at 15-30 in the next game, Radwanska again attempted to outmaneuver Li at the net with a crafty pass-lob combination.  Her opponent tightened her focus to swat down the smash, which seemed to raise her spirits.  She angled a lovely backhand winner cross-court on the next point and ultimately held with a strong first serve.  Serving to force a tiebreak, Radwanska fell behind 15-30 too.  In trouble at the net as Li eyed double set point, she leaped high enough to crack a backhand smash over her shoulder deep enough to draw an error.  But she looked a bit weary in the next rally, attempting a drop shot from too deep in the court and with her opponent too close to the baseline.  Li’s ensuing winner gave her a set point.

While she saved that first set point, Radwanska faced a second serve on her next set point and played defense throughout.  A relatively patient Li carefully constructed the point, gradually moving her opponent further and further wide of the sidelines and progressively deeper behind the baseline until she positioned herself for a routine smash.

The first set had lasted over an hour and featured seven service breaks.  An eighth arrived immediately to start the second set as Li suffered a predictable lull.  More surprising was the love hold that followed from Radwanska, who swept eight straight points in a show of resilience after what could have felt like a demoralizing set.  Quickly jumping back onto the scoreboard, Li held easily with an ace to stay within range and prevent the Pole from settling too deep into a comfort zone.

Sure enough, the Chinese broke back directly to erase the effects of her dip in form to start the set.  Another convincing service game preceded a break at love as the match quickly started to slip away from the fourth seed.  Having won four games in a row, Li firmly held the momentum in her corner as she stood just two games from the semifinals.  Her run of points continued in a demonstration of her confidence, pushing Radwanska to the brink of defeat despite her 13-match winning streak.

To her credit, the Pole clung to her serve in a deuce game that forced Li to serve for a berth in the semifinal and kept her under some pressure.  Although she lost the first two points with routine errors, she retained her aggressive attitude by hammering a series of backhands on the next point that set up a swing volley.  Two break points soon hovered over her, but she continued to keep Radwanska on her heels with groundstrokes that landed near the baseline, even when stretched out of position.  That trend continues for two more points, the last two of a match that ended with the fourth seed’s backhand out and the fourth seed out of the tournament.

Having lost all four of her Australian Open quarterfinals and six of seven quarterfinals at majors overall, Radwanska left with her 13-match winning streak ended in a match that she did not lack chances to seize.  For Li, who reached her third semifinal here in four years, the victory reasserted her momentum in this key rivalry and demonstrated again how well her game suits the courts Down Under.  She showed the grit that has made her known as “Nails” to many fans by winning the last three games of the first set and surviving the deuce game at its end.