MELBOURNE, Australia — Li Na became the first Chinese player to reach a Grand Slam singles final, saving a match point before beating top-ranked Caroline Wozniacki 3-6, 7-5, 6-3 Thursday in the Australian Open semifinals.
Wozniacki, playing at a major for the first time with the No. 1 ranking, had match point at 5-4 and 40-30 in the second set before Li rallied. An hour and six minutes later, she served out on her first match point.
Li, who lost to Serena Williams in two tiebreak sets in the semifinals here last year, will meet either Kim Clijsters or No. 2 Vera Zvonareva in the final.
Li beat Clijsters in the final of the leadup event at Sydney earlier this month, becoming the first Chinese woman to win a WTA premier event. It was just another first for Li, who was the first Chinese player to win a tour-level title and the first to enter the top 10.
“I’m so happy I can be the first Chinese player to come to a final — I always do the first one!” she said in a lighthearted interview after the match in which she joked about losing sleep on the eve of the match because her coach-husband Shan Jiang was snoring.
Asked what motivated her comeback, she deadpanned: “Prize money.”
Li looked down and out after the first set, when she made 17 unforced errors and struggled for consistency. She finished with 51 unforced errors, but that was a reflection of her pushing Wozniacki to the extremes.
Wozniacki could have ended the match in 1 hour, 29 minutes, but Li hit a forehand down the line to save match point. It sparked a revival. She broke Wozniacki in that game to get the sets back on serve and then broke her Danish rival again.
They traded breaks twice in the third set before Li held her nerve to finish it off.
Earlier Wednesday night on the men’s side, surprise came at the top as well when No. 1 seed Rafael Nadal of Spain was ousted by countryman David Ferrer in the quarterfinals.
Late in the match, Nadal wiped the tears from his eyes with his taped-up fingers.
His Rafa Slam was evaporating. The 25-match winning streak in Grand Slams and his bid to become the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to hold all four major titles at once was three games from ending.
He was hurt. He was down two sets and a break. It was the same court, and the same round where he retired in the Australian Open last year. Yet the idea of packing it in didn’t even enter his mind.
“I hate the retirements,” he said, “This wasn’t the day. I did last year. I hate that moment. … Didn’t want to repeat that.”
Six games later, Nadal was out of the tournament, losing 6-4, 6-2, 6-3 to Ferrer in Rod Laver Arena, the center court at Melbourne Park named after the Australian great whose four consecutive majors he was trying to match.
“It’s a victory for me. But it’s not a victory really,” Ferrer said.
Laver, the Australian great who lives in Carlsbad, Calif., was surprised to hear of Nadal’s loss.
“I’ll be darned,” Laver said in a phone interview with The Associated Press. “I thought he’d come all the way through but he didn’t. They were all counting that he was going to be the defending champion in all four tournaments.
“That’s disappointing for him, really,” Laver said. “In a way, that was an effort to put all those tournaments together through last year. It really was a good performance. I had him as being favored, even to beat Federer, the way he was playing. He just has got a game that’s difficult for Roger.”
Laver is the last man to win a true Grand Slam, made up of the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in a calendar year. He did it twice, as an amateur in 1962 and again in 1969.
Again, it was Australia Day. Again, Nadal’s match was interrupted by fireworks for the national day celebrations. Again, the match was a dud.
Nadal received treatment to his upper left thigh after the third game. He had the thigh heavily strapped. He needed treatment again after the first set.
“I can say nothing about the injury,” he said after the match. “Seriously, I would prefer don’t talk a lot about the injury.”
“Tonight, first of all, I don’t know nothing. Second thing, for respect to the winner and to a friend, I prefer to talk about the match. I think he played at a very high level. I just congratulate him and wish him all the best for the semifinal.”
He was later quoted in Spanish as saying he had a small tear in a muscle in his upper left leg.
Ferrer will meet 2010 finalist Andy Murray in the semifinals. It was Murray who was leading Nadal by two sets and a break last year when the Spaniard withdrew with an injured right knee.
Murray had a struggle on his hands Wednesday, constantly trying to find his rhythm against Alexandr Dolgopolov before advancing 7-5, 6-3, 6-7 (3), 6-3.
Dolgopolov had already beaten 2008 runner-up Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and French Open finalist Robin Soderling and had the kind of unorthodox game that can unsettle higher-ranked players.
Apart from the second set, when Murray didn’t lose a point on serve until he had triple set point, momentum swung wildly.
But Murray held firm in the end and thinks it will help him in the semifinals.
Murray lost the final here in straight sets last year to Roger Federer. He’s a more experienced and accomplished player this year. And there’s no certainty Federer will be in his path, anyway.
The defending champion plays his semifinal Thursday night against Novak Djokovic, who beat him in the semifinals here in 2008 en route to the title. No. 3-ranked Djokovic also beat Federer in the semifinals of the last U.S. Open, after saving two match points.
Nadal went on to win the U.S. Open and complete a career Grand Slam in all four majors. Between them, Nadal and Federer had combined to win 21 of the last 23 majors. Now, Federer is alone in the draw.
Kim Clijsters has won the U.S. Open three times, including the last two since she returned in 2009 from more than two years in retirement to get married and have a child.
On Thursday, she meets No. 2 Vera Zvonareva in a rematch of the U.S. Open final. Zvonareva has reached the last two Grand Slam finals, but has yet to win a major. Clijsters is aiming for her first major outside of U.S. soil — she reached the 2004 final here, only to lose to fellow Belgian Justine Henin.
In the other women’s semifinal, top-ranked Caroline Wozniacki will play China’s Li Na, who is back at this stage for the second consecutive year. Li leads their head-to-heads 2-1, but hasn’t gone further than the Grand Slam semifinals.
Wozniacki ensured she’ll hold onto the No. 1 ranking by reaching the semifinals, but would like to remove any doubt she deserves the top spot by winning her first major.
Ferrer has never won a major, nor has Murray. When they meet Friday, Ferrer will be playing his second semi at a major; Murray his fifth.
“I am playing a lot of years to the Grand Slams,” said Ferrer, who won the Australian Open tuneup tournament in Auckland. “Of course, he has more experience than me. But now in this moment, I am 28 years. I am playing a lot of matches. I want to enjoy this moment, no?
“The next match against Andy, it’s another match in my career. Just I need to will fight a lot, like every match of my life.”
Fifth-ranked Murray was the only man to beat Nadal in a major last year. He would like to end a British drought at men’s Grand Slams that dates to 1936.
He had some challenges overcoming his 22-year-old Ukrainian rival Dolgopolov.
Dolgopolov mixed up his slice and spin with deep flat shots, sometimes at the net, sometimes at the baseline, and rarely gave Murray a look at the same ball twice in a row. Although he had 77 unforced errors, it showed he was pushing the limits and constantly had Murray on guard.
At the same point last year, Murray had just pulled off one of his biggest ever wins.
Nadal was out of the tournament, and stayed off the tour until March while his right knee healed. There was some criticism of Nadal for retiring while trailing in the last set.
Nadal didn’t want to blame injuries this time.
“It is obvious I did not feel at my best. I had a problem with the match at the very beginning, and after that, the match was almost over. In general, I had a virus. When you have a virus, your body goes down and you have more risk of everything,” he said of a sickness he picked up in Doha at the start of the year and carried into the tournament.
“That’s probably what happened. That’s the simple thing.”
Nadal was already looking forward to another successful year, saying he was more confident 12 months later.
“Is different because last year was the knees. I had a problem, big problem, in the knee in the past,” he said. “So was hard for me to have another time the same. I didn’t see a solution in that. Is not the case.
“This year everything is a little bit different. I have three more Grand Slams … This year we start with a little bit of unlucky. I gonna work hard to come back and to keep having chances and to compete against the best players and to keep being in the top positions of the ranking.”