Hard work pays off as Li reaches Australian Open semis
Li Na pictured during her Australian Open match against Flavia Pennetta in Melbourne on January 21, 2014 - by William West
The Chinese trailblazer was in dominant form as she crushed the 28th seed 6-2, 6-2 to set up a last-four clash with either Serbia's Ana Ivanovic or up-and-coming Canadian teen Eugenie Bouchard.
Li is starting to peak at the right time, with the 67-minute mauling of Pennetta coming after she smashed Ekaterina Makarova in less than an hour on Sunday.
It followed a verbal volley by coach Carlos Rodriguez after her struggles in the third round, when she was taken to three sets and saved a match point against Lucie Safarova.
"After I saved match point (against Safarova) I have got better, I got a lot of confidence from that and I believed in myself," said Li.
"I feel good, I always play well here and I hope I can take one more step this year."
The two-time Melbourne finalist and 2011 French Open winner, who came into the tournament on the back of winning the Shenzhen Open, was in a different class to the Italian, who at 31 is one day older than the Chinese player.
Li said it all was down to her unstinting preparation.
"I prepared for at least one-and-a-half days. I knew she was a tough opponent because I have played her four times. Every time was tough," she said, adding that despite moving closer to the final she was taking nothing for granted.
"Everyone can beat everyone in a big tournament."
It was Pennetta's first quarter-final at Melbourne Park since making her tournament debut in 2003, and she appeared overawed by the occasion. But she said she lost because Li played so well.
"It was perfect for her. She played really well. From the first ball, I think she play really well today."
The composed Li has been a consistently good performer on the Plexicushion courts over the past five years.
She has made the final twice, losing to Kim Clijsters in 2011 and then last year to Victoria Azarenka after dramatically twice rolling her ankle and briefly blacking out.
A blistering cross-court forehand gave her a break point opportunity on Pennetta's opening serve at Rod Laver Arena, and a powerful backhand down the line sealed the game to give the Chinese star an early advantage.
The Italian should have pulled level in the next game, creating three break points, but she failed to convert any of them.
It cost Pennetta dearly as the Chinese cranked up the pressure to go 3-0 in front, when a looping forehand from the 28th seed fell just outside the baseline.
Li's first serve was far more potent than Pennetta's and she raced to a 4-0 lead with her first ace of the match.
Pennetta was losing confidence, with only 40 percent of her first serves going in, and a double-fault on break point compounded her problems as Li strengthened her grip at 5-0.
She managed to claw back a game on the Li serve and then held to give the set a more respectable look, but it only delayed the inevitable.
The flustered Pennetta then lost her opening service game on another double-fault, with the Italian kicking the ball away in disgust.
With the winning line in sight, Li easily held serve then broke again when Pennetta smacked a backhand into the net and Li raced 4-0 in front.
Pennetta then saved two break points to stay alive before the Chinese number one wrapped it up.
Despite the defeat, Pennetta is projected to return to the top 20 after the tournament.