Na Li Na Li of China celebrates winning the womens final against Kim Clijsters of Belgium during day six of the 2011 Medibank International at Sydney Olympic Park Tennis Centre on January 14, 2011 in Sydney, Australia.

Li vs. Clijsters:  The fifth first-time finalist in the last four majors, Li Na hopes to follow the yellow brick road to the same destination at which Schiavone arrived on the red dirt of Roland Garros.  Yet a maiden title for China’s “golden flower” would surprise much less than the Miracle on Clay, for the ninth seed regularly has ambushed higher-ranked foes on the sport’s grandest stages.  Her icy fortitude resurfaced when she confronted a match point in the second set of her semifinal against world #1 Wozniacki, a moment at which most 11th-ranked players would have contented themselves with the achievement of reaching a Slam semifinal.  Far from sauntering complacently to the exit, however, Li whipped a forehand winner past the Dane and never relinquished the initiative thereafter.  Determined to control her own destiny, she never retreated from her aggressive mentality throughout the tense final set, while Wozniacki shrank ever further into her shell of passivity.  And when Li served for the match, she played with the composure of a champion rather than exposing her nerves with either tentative or reckless ball-striking.  First among her compatriots to reach the final weekend at a Slam, she will bear not only her own expectations but those of her watchful compatriots, who impose lofty standards upon their athletes.  If she can channel the inevitable nerves into positive energy, Clijsters will find Li a sterner challenge than any of her six previous victims.  Whereas Radwanska and Zvonareva generally allowed the Belgian to dictate the rallies, she will receive no such courtesy from the ninth seed.  Further elevating the latter’s confidence, moreover, is her startling victory over Kim in the Sydney final after she reversed a monumental first-set deficit. 

Although this encounter looms much larger in the career of Li than of Clijsters, the world #3 would profit from this fourth major title more than one might first imagine.  A champion only under the bright lights of Arthur Ashe Stadium thus far, the Belgian would buttress her legacy by accompanying her three US Open trophies with the Daphne Akhurst Cup.  Since she claims to envision retirement after the 2012 Olympics, Clijsters may pursue her few remaining opportunities with an additional layer of urgency.  Slightly less authoritative than Li throughout the fortnight, she has meandered through unfocused interludes before restoring order just as a set or crucial service break seemed on the verge of slipping away from her.  Outside her farcically one-sided opener against Safina, however, Kim’s semifinal victory over world #2 Zvonareva unfolded her most convincing and complete performance in Melbourne.  Meticulously organizing the rallies one groundstroke at a time, she steadily outmaneuvered the Russian from the baseline and smoothly sallied into the forecourt whenever she received a meek riposte.  Such alert instincts could prove central to her fate in the final, where the player who finishes points more efficiently will prevail. 

Since both contenders couple their offense with sturdy defense, each of them must plant herself inside the baseline and pin her opponent behind it in order to prevent her from restarting the rally on neutral terms.  Counterbalancing the Chinese star’s somewhat more potent aggression is Kim’s somewhat more fluid movement, but the two finalists can exchange roles with ease.  Mirroring each other’s styles, both Clijsters and Li have assembled symmetrical groundstroke games, superb fitness, precisely timed returns, and serves that disintegrate as rarely as they dazzle.  Thus, the match should hinge less upon overall tactics than upon point-by-point execution.  After an understated beginning, we expect to watch them carefully probe each other’s vulnerabilities and the contours of the court as they determine the degree of risk that will bring them the greatest reward.  Can they choreograph a pas de deux worthy of last year’s championship clash?

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