There was at least one person in Melbourne who didn’t fall head over heels for Eugenie Bouchard over the past 10 days, and that woman blasted the Canadian ingénue out of the Australian Open today. Playing one of her best matches at a time when it was most needed, Li Na called a halt—at least for the moment—to Bouchard-mania with a richly textured victory in an hour and 26 minutes, 6-2, 6-4.
As a result of the win, Li will play the third Australian Open final of her career and try to win a second Grand Slam title. In each of her two previous Oz final opportunities, Li inched closer to a fitting breakthrough at the tournament that bills itself as “The Grand Slam of Asia-Pacific.” If she plays the way she did today—the way she’s performed since surviving a match point in her third-round match—it’s hard to imagine her losing again.
Li is the highest seed left in the draw, at No. 4. But today it was clear that she would have her hands full with an opponent who barely snuck into the seedings at No. 30. By the beginning of this week, that low seeding looked absurd, which is a pretty good indication of how rapidly Bouchard, a 19-year-old from Montreal, Canada, has matured into a Grand Slam contender. “She is a future champion,” Li’s own coach Carlos Rodriguez said of Bouchard immediately after the match. “She’s a wonderful athlete who will be a wonderful champ.”
However, there was nothing wonderful about the way Bouchard’s first Grand Slam semifinal unfolded. Seemingly nervous, she didn’t win a point in either of her first two service games, which enabled Li to jump to a two-break, 4-0 lead. Bouchard’s greatest problems at that point appeared to be nerves that kept her tightly bound up and unable to run and hit freely, and the inability to put her first serve into play.
Li feasted on Bouchard’s second serves, winning nine of the 10 she faced in the first set. The 31-year-old French Open champion bolted to a 5-0 lead, but she took her foot off the gas in the sixth game, gifting it to Bouchard with a double fault. Li faced the first real test of her mettle two games later, after Bouchard held for 2-5.
Known as a streaky, often moody player, Li appeared to be inviting Bouchard into the match. But she thought better of it in that eighth game, after the women battled to deuce, and slammed the door shut with a forehand un-returnable and a massive drive volley that secured the set.
Bouchard is a promising player with a game that’s classic, well-grooved, and just that little bit different. She’s 5’10”, but somehow seems elastic instead of gangly, and quick if not exactly speedy. She generates excellent racquet speed and hits the forehand the way many of her male countrymen nail a slapshot. Her backhand is mildly eccentric; she appears to bunt or poke a lot of balls, but with enough of a backswing and sufficient power to give the ball a good ride. Although she was deserted by her serve today, it’s already fairly big—and destined only to get bigger.
All those positive attributes came into play in the second set. Bouchard, back on her heels after the 28-minute first set, fought off Li’s probings in a long first game to hold and take a 1-0 lead. She pushed Li hard in the next game, and her reward was a break that caused 100 million Chinese to exclaim, in unison, “Uh-oh.”
However, despite these troubles Li never lost heart or sank into a funk as she was wont to do in days of yore. She broke Bouchard right back with ease to erase the break advantage and trail by 1-2.
The next game was the pivotal one of the match, albeit in a subtle way. Bouchard fought her way to a break point, but Li unloaded the most emblematic shot of her outstanding day—a cross-court backhand winner. She hit an identical shot to get to advantage, and brought the games to 2-all with an ace.
Li then broke Bouchard with more dazzling shotmaking, as crisp groundstrokes poured from the face of her racquet like so many gemstones. She was applying the pressure beautifully, and executing at a stunning level. The three pillars on which she built the match were her excellently placed serve, her cross-court backhand, and a general level of aggression that had Li constantly pressing forward, her body moving into the court behind the ball with every shot.
Bouchard is a fighter, though, and the record will show that she broke Li back for 3-all in the second. Yet by then it was clear that the youngster was overwhelmed not just by Li but by the occasion (heck, she didn’t even survive Aussie Open qualifying last year). She managed to play some good tennis while playing catch-up, but had neither the confidence nor composure to assert herself and get out in front.
Li broke Bouchard in the seventh game to lead 4-3, from which point both players held until Li wrapped it up with an easy hold game at 5-4, the final shot—fittingly enough—a cross-court backhand winner.
Stat of the Match: Li hit 35 winners, a truly impressive number which translates to an average of almost two per game, regardless of who was serving.