MELBOURNE, Australia - With solid serving, impressive footspeed and some ferocious hitting off the ground, Li Na stormed into her third Grand Slam final on Thursday, following up her quarterfinal upset over No.4 seed Agnieszka Radwanska with a semifinal win over No.2 seed Maria Sharapova.
The No.6-seeded Li came out firing, breaking in the opening game, and she never really looked back, balancing aggression with consistency - she had 21 winners to 18 unforced - while Sharapova was just a bit off - 17 winners to 32 unforced. Sharapova fought hard, which explains the match time of an hour and 33 minutes for a 62 62 scoreline, but Li came through on just about every important moment.
The result was a stark contrast to the pair's recent head-to-head: they played three times in 2012 and Sharapova won them all, and while Li had all kinds of chances in the final of Rome - she led 64 40 and held match point in the third set - Sharapova won the other two meetings comprehensively.
"In the beginning of the match I was nervous - I was happy to come to the semis again, but for some reason I really wanted to win this match," Li told reporters in her post-match press conference. "I don't know what happened today. I just came to the court feeling like, 'Okay, just do it.' Yeah.
"We had a lot of close games. Before I would get angry or something in those moments, but this year I've tried to cool down on the court. Like Hollywood - you don't have to show your opponent what you're thinking. It's a little bit like Hollywood, but not real. I still have some work to do though."
Li's first two Grand Slam finals came in 2011, finishing runner-up at the Australian Open (losing to Kim Clijsters in the final) and winning the French Open (beating Francesca Schiavone in the final).
The Chinese was asked about how this Grand Slam final will be different from the first two. "My first time in a Grand Slam final in 2011, I was a little bit shocked. I didn't know what to do. No one told me what to do on the court. And two years ago I was the first player from China to do these things, so everyone was so excited - maybe now it's not so interesting anymore. I don't know, maybe it's not.
"But this time should be better. What should I worry about? I worked so hard in winter training, and now everything is coming back to me. I'll come to the court, take the racquet and enjoy the tennis."
Sharapova talked about Li's level in press. "She played a really great match - she was certainly much more aggressive than I was, dictating play," she said. "I was always on the defense. When I had my opportunities and break points in games that went to deuce, I don't think any of them went my way.
"If I took those chances and clawed my way back and made it a bit tougher for her, I'm sure she would have thought a little bit more. But I certainly didn't make her think about anything today."
And on Li potentially winning the title? "I thought she played really confident tennis, probably the best she's played against me," Sharapova said. "There's no reason why she can't win."