MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA – Li Na has exciting young teenager Eugenie Bouchard standing in the way of a second consecutive Australian Open final after the Chinese star crushed Flavia Pennetta to make the last four on Tuesday.
The fourth seed demolished the Italian 6-2, 6-2 to set up an enticing clash with the Canadian hotshot, 12 years her junior, who upset former world No. 1 Ana Ivanovic in three sets.
Chinese trailblazer Li, 31, is a two-time Melbourne finalist but has never lifted the trophy, losing to Kim Clijsters in 2011 and last year to Victoria Azarenka after dramatically twice rolling her ankle and briefly blacking out.
With revenge against Azarenka in prospect, Li powered past Pennetta and appears to be hitting peak form at the right time.
“I think everyone wants to win a Grand Slam. But first you have to be in the semis, right?” said Li, when asked about her chances with Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova both already out.
“But I was really happy today. At least tomorrow I have a day off. I can talk with (coach) Carlos (Rodriguez), can talk with the team and prepare for the next round.”
The next match is an unknown quantity for Li, with Bouchard coming from nowhere to make her first ever Grand Slam semifinal, mirroring last year’s run to the last four by another teenager, America’s Sloane Stephens.
Bouchard rallied from a set down to beat resurgent 2008 French Open champion Ivanovic and reinforce her status as one of the game’s most exciting prospects.
The 19-year-old Canadian, the WTA’s newcomer of the year in 2013, showed composure and grit to upset the 14th-ranked Serb 5-7, 7-5, 6-2.
It was all the more remarkable in that she is making her tournament debut, with the victory forecast to push her into the world’s top 20 when the new rankings are released next week.
“I feel like she was playing really well and I had to keep fighting and playing aggressive,” Bouchard said. “I feel like I stepped it up in the second and third sets.”
The shock win ended the unbeaten streak of Ivanovic, who came into the tournament on the back of victory at the Auckland International and stunned Williams in the third round.
Ivanovic, who took a medical timeout in the second set with a left leg problem, was aiming to make her first Grand Slam semi-final since 2008, when she won the French Open and made the Australian Open final.
She tipped Bouchard for a big future.
“She’s a young girl. I think she has a very bright future in front of her,” said the 26-year-old, who herself found fame at an early age and admits she struggled with the pressure.
“She’s a very aggressive player. It’s sometimes very hard to read her game. There is no real patterns like with other players you have. She’s a great mover,” the Serb added.
Li will have her work cut out against Bouchard but, as experienced 28th seed Pennetta found, the Chinese is hitting top form.
The Italian, who is exactly one day older than Li, said her fellow veteran was continuously improving and would be hard to beat in Thursday’s semifinal.
“She’s No. 4 in the world, she’s a Grand Slam champion. That’s what we’re talking about,” she said.
“She just improved her game a lot. She’s really consistent and today she was much better than me on the court.”
In men’s action, Tomas Berdych fought off the tenacious David Ferrer in four sets to move into the semifinals.
The Czech seventh seed outlasted the Spanish third seed 6-1, 6-4, 2-6, 6-4 in just over 3 hours and will play Stanislas Wawrinka, who beat defending champion Novak Djokovic in five sets, for a place in the final.
The victory means that Berdych has now completed a set of semifinal appearances at all four Grand Slams.
“It is always an extremely tough and physical match with David and after losing the third set I was not playing my best and it was the only set where I was a bit up and down,” Berdych said.
“After that I tried to refocus on my game and save for one very tough game on my serve in the fourth. I then made a break and that proved decisive.”
Berdych began confidently winning the first two sets but in the process had his powerful serve broken after 60 consecutive holds in the tournament.
Ferrer, bidding for his third Australian Open semifinal, hit back by winning the third set and looked to be getting on top of the tiring Czech as the match entered a fourth set.
Wawrinka needed four hours to fnish off Djokovic.
It ended a 14-match losing run against Djokovic for Wawrinka, who had gone down in two previous five-setters in majors to the Serb, at last year’s Australian Open and U.S. Open.
The stunning defeat halted Djokovic’s 28-match unbeaten run since the U.S. Open final and his 25-match winning streak at the Australian Open stretching back to 2011.
Djokovic also became the first defending champion to lose before the semifinals at the Australian Open since Rafael Nadal retired injured against Andy Murray in the quarterfinals in 2009.
“Last year (at the Australian Open) I didn’t finish it and it was really tough. But this year I came back, it’s a new year and I was feeling really good,” Wawrinka said.
“I tried everything, he’s an amazing champion. . . . I’m really, really, really, really happy.”
It is Wawrinka’s second Grand Slam semifinal after losing to Djokovic at last year’s U.S. Open.
Djokovic jumped away with a service break in the sixth game and broke Wawrinka again to take the opening set with an angled crosscourt winner off a net cord.
But the Swiss cranked it up in the second, breaking Djokovic with a tremendous backhand winner on his way to leveling the match.
It was in the third set where a rampant Wawrinka took charge with a double service break to have a rattled Djokovic screaming at his coach’s box in frustration.
Djokovic finally got his first break point in two-and-a-half sets in the eighth game of the fourth set and broke when Wawrinka’s forehand went wide, prompting the Serb to give a prolonged howl of delight.
The Serb had to survive two break points as he served for the set and he rose to the challenge with a couple of aces to take the match into a fifth set for the third time between the two players at Grand Slams.
Djokovic stepped it up and after the Swiss missed an easy volley at the net to bring up break point, the Serb worked Wawrinka wide to get the break in the third game of the final set.
But Wawrinka quickly broke back as the gripping match took another twist.
Games went with service — with Djokovic, serving from behind, always under pressure — until the 16th game when two back-to-back errors from the Serb handed Wawrinka a stunning victory.
“I was feeling great on the court and was focused on that. I was trying to stay aggressive. I always fight, I always try and tonight I won so I’m really happy,” Wawrinka said.
Nishikori to face Canada
Kei Nishikori will take part in this month’s Davis Cup World Group first-round tie with Canada, the Japan Tennis Association said Tuesday.
Nishikori, who is currently ranked 17th in the world, was among four players named for the fixture that will be played at Ariake Tennis Forest Park from Jan. 31 to Feb. 2. He will be joined by Go Soeda, Yuichi Sugita and Yasutaka Uchiyama.