Australian Open 2011 Li Na to face Kim Clijsters in women's final

Li Na, to the overwhelming relief of maybe a billion people in China and the tearful bewilderment of her devastated opponent Caroline Wozniacki, is in the final of the Australian Open against Kim Clijsters.

It is an historic event, the first slam singles final, men's or women's, featuring a Chinese player. Yet she is not sure the achievement will inspire the tennis bonanza in China that most commentators imagine.

"Good for me," she agreed, "good for my team … maybe good for China tennis. I'm not sure. Maybe."
Pressed on her reticence, Li said it would depend on how the media in China present what she has done and is about to do. A media student herself, she is well aware that China's press is unpredictable; there may well be a residue of resentment in the Chinese establishment about Li's flight from the state-run system.

"I mean, you have to see what they are write down for me," she said. "Everything decide for the media."

Even in her halting English, the message was clear.

Li Na postmatch interview after reach Australian Open 2011 final

Clijsters, meanwhile, had a ridiculously easy time beating Vera Zvonareva 6-3, 6-3 to reach her eighth grand slam singles final. The Belgian, still called "Aussie Kim" from her time with Lleyton Hewitt, will start favourite on Saturday, but there is little doubt the two in-form players of the past fortnight are contesting the title.

After saving match point in the second set to beat the world No1 3-6, 7-5, 6-3, Li carries not only the good wishes of many neutrals but surely the hopes of even those among her compatriots who might regard tennis as giant ping-pong.

For Wozniacki, who made us laugh, just a little, this week with her quirky press conferences and a smiling demeanour that charmed even the cynics, tears were the immediate response to blowing a match that was hers for the taking.

As Wozniacki hurried from the court, head down, the sun-bathed arena rose to acclaim the winner, a sturdy campaigner who has got stronger as she worked her way through the draw.

When Wozniacki failed to convert match point at the end of the second set, she compounded her misery by double-faulting to hand the set to Li. The Dane, still without a slam to her name, was clearly so stunned that she surrendered the initiative and momentum to Li in a third set that went by in a blur.

"I'm so happy to be the first Chinese player to a final," Li told Britain's Sam Smith, working courtside for the local broadcaster, Channel 7. "I was a little bit nervous. And last night my husband, he sleep like this [making snoring noises]. I was waking up every hour."

Her husband, Jiang Shan, is also her coach, and he beamed down from the stands as if suddenly pitched into I'm A Celebrity's Husband … Get Me Out Of Here.

Smith, in the fine tradition of TV gaffes at this tournament, wrongly announced to everyone that this was their fifth wedding anniversary.

"Is it?" said a gobsmacked Li. "Today? Not two days later? I thought it was the 29th!" It is.

"The ground opened up on me a little," Smith said later.

Li's answer as to what pulled her through when so close to losing was more straightforward: "Prize money."

Li's mother famously has never seen her play – and that is not about to change apparently. "I think she prefer to stay home," she said. "I ask her many times. [She says] No, no I have my life, I didn't want come with you."

Li, who turns 29 next month, is in many ways the classic modern women's tennis player: experienced, full of perseverance and playing her best tennis after many years on the circuit.

A childhood badminton star, she was persuaded to take up tennis at nine and turned professional 12 years ago. But the sport has not consumed her – which might explain her pragmatic approach. Li dropped out of tennis in 2002 for two years to study. She has had other spells away from the sport through injury but looks immensely fit and committed at the business end of this championship.

Not everyone is as gloomy as Li about the future of tennis in China.

Brad Drewett, a national junior champion in Australia who went on to reach 34th in the world in the 80s, is the ATP's tennis development officer in Asia. At the Shanghai Masters last year, he told me: "The programmes here have developed significantly over the last five years and there are many very good junior players.

"Roger Federer held a clinic in Shanghai … with the best 11- and 12-year-olds. The feedback I got was there were a number of very exciting young prospects.

"I would hope in five, six to seven years we will have some significant players who are not just playing, but competing, and competing well, on the world tour. If that were to happen, the potential is unimaginable. It's not a matter of if, it's a matter of when."

Whether Li starts the revolution is the most intriguing part of the narrative.

Li Na vs Caroline Wozniacki AO Australian Open 2010 Highlights