MELBOURNE (AFP) – Kim Clijsters will find herself cast in the role of villain for one of the few times in her career as she bids to prevent Li Na's Australian Open fairytale from having the perfect ending.
Universally liked by fellow players and adored by Australian sports fans, the Belgian world number three would normally expect to go into Saturday's final with the crowd firmly behind her.
|AFP - Kim Clijsters|
But China's Li has won thousands of hearts and minds on her way to the decider with a combination of her tenacious play on the court and her disarmingly frank and humorous interviews off it.
And she seems certain to have the backing of many of the 15,000 fans on the Rod Laver Arena when she steps out for the most important match of her life.
The 28-year-old Li scrapped her way into the final with a superb three-set win over world number one Caroline Wozniacki Thursday, saving a match point in the second set before reeling in her younger opponent 3-6, 7-5, 6-3.
Until the semi-final Li had not dropped a set as she dominated her matches, but she showed against Wozniacki that she has the mental fortitude to dig deep when it was needed.
The potential impact of a Li win cannot be underestimated.
Li's success at Melbourne in 2010, when she and Zheng Jie both made the semi-finals, ensured enormous publicity for the sport in the world's most populous nation.
She said making the final would only increase tennis's popularity.
"I think maybe because now I am in the final, maybe many young players or children will see me and think: 'Maybe one day we can do the same or even better than her'," Li said.
"So I think we can do even better and I feel that more people will come and watch, more people will pay attention."
In contrast to Li's smooth sailing, Clijsters has had a mixed run to the final, opening in a blaze of glory as she beat Dinara Safina 6-0, 6-0 before struggling against the unheralded Alize Cornet and Ekaterina Makarova.
However she came good as she defeated Vera Zvonareva in Thursday's semi-final 6-3, 6-3, later declaring that it was the best she had played all week.
Li and Clijsters have met six times previously, with Clijsters holding a 4-2 advantage. But just two weeks ago in the Sydney International final, Li won 7-6 (7/3), 6-3 after being 5-0 down in the first set.
"I think she's a good player," Clijsters said, remembering the Sydney final.
"I think we're very similar type of players, I think we have a lot of things in common on the court.
"She played extremely well to get back, and was very focused and determined and just hit some incredible shots out there."
Clijsters said there was much to admire in Li's game, with her opponent having no obvious weaknesses.
"Not just the mental side of it, but also I don't think that she has a very big weakness on the groundstrokes," she said.
"She has a good, steady serve and maybe that's where she's a little better than me, the consistency with the serve."
Clijsters, a triple US Open champion, reached the Australian Open final in 2004, when she was beaten by countrywoman Justine Henin.
She will be playing in her eighth Grand Slam final, while it will be Li's first.
The Belgian lost her first four major finals, and she said it was hard to know how Li would respond to the big occasion.
"Everybody reacts a little differently in those kind of situations," she said.
"She's played big matches, she's a little bit older and been on tour, so it's not like she's a teenager and coming up and is overwhelmed by the whole situation."
Li, who earlier joked she was motivated to win the tournament because of the prize money on offer, said Clijsters was the favourite and therefore there was no pressure on her.
"She's a good player, a tough player also," Li said of Clijsters. "It's another challenge. Of course it's a tough match, but tennis is never easy.
"I am in the final already so I have nothing to lose."