Li Na was struggling - unforced errors piling up, an in-form Lucie Safarova across the net, the heat - but her will to win, and a very important five centimeters, helped see the World No.4 through.
WTA Staff

MELBOURNE, Australia - Li Na dodged a valiant upset bid from Lucie Safarova at the Australian Open on Friday, saving a match point in the second set and eventually beating the Czech in a thriller.

In the first half of the match it was all Safarova - the No.26-seeded Czech was firing off all cylinders, particularly off the forehand side, and built a hefty 61 53 lead in front of a shellshocked crowd.

But Li has won a Grand Slam title and been ranked as high as No.3 for a reason. She closed in to 5-all, fended off a match point down 6-5 - her opponent sent a backhand just long on that point - and eventually prevailed in a grinder, 16 76(2) 63. Both players finished with 99 points in the match.

"I think five centimeters saved my tournament," Li said, referring to the missed Safarova backhand on match point. "If she hit it in, I think me and my whole team would be on our way to the airport now.

"At least I won the match, and I'm still in the tournament now. It was a difficult day for me but I was really happy with the way I was fighting on the court from the first point until the last point."

Li was asked afterwards to break down what broke down for her in the first half of the match.

"You cannot play good tennis every day," she said. "I can usually hit very well on the court, but if I'm not hitting very well, I can run and I can fight for every point to try to stay in the match longer.

"I lost the first set pretty easily, pretty fast, and I was thinking that if I continued like that, I would go home. There was no other choice but to change something very quickly. My opponent wasn't giving me much time. So I just tried to play the ball back into the court, run, and see if I got any chances."

Li's numbers for the match weren't too pretty - 17 winners to 50 unforced errors - but there's a positive to coming through a struggle at a Grand Slam, and the Chinese talked about that afterwards as well.

"I like to play Grand Slams, because after your match you have one day off so you can prepare and change things that you did in the last match. You have more time to talk to the team and change.

"But I just finished the match. I really want to enjoy the day right now."

Li, who has now won 23 of her last 27 matches at the Happy Slam, has become a role model not only for young ones in China, but also for people and children of Chinese background all around the world. It has been a new dynamic for the World No.4, but she's adjusted to it and is now embracing the role.

"Now so many children are looking you up and finding out what you do on the court, off the court. Right now I'm really playing tennis for myself - but I cannot say any bad words, otherwise the children will copy me. There are so many bad things I cannot do! Even sometimes we go to a party, and we'll have a drink or something, but the next day they'll put it in the newspaper that I had a drink or something.

"After I read that I said, 'Okay, I can't even drink when I'm at a party. Only water now - healthy.'"