Gritty Li survives scare
Melbourne - Never-say-die Li Na saved a match point before battling back and overcoming Czech Lucie Safarova in three gruelling sets as she scrapped her way into the Australian Open fourth round on Friday.
The Chinese fourth seed, a finalist last year, rallied from a set down and through a tiebreak to win 1-6, 7-6 (7/2), 6-3 in a two-and-a-half hour marathon on another hot Melbourne day.
In doing so she avoided matching her earliest exit at the tournament since 2008, and set up a clash with Russian 22nd seed Ekaterina Makarova for a place in the quarter-finals.
But it was a narrow escape for Li who self-destructed in the first set and had to draw on all her experience to find a way past the 26th-seeded Czech, who was playing with her right thigh heavily strapped and her left shoulder taped.
"In the beginning she played very nice, very good and it was tough to find any rhythm," said the popular Li, who has more than 10 million fans on Chinese social media.
"I'm happy I was able to fight and win the match. I just tried to play at the baseline and move the ball around the court."
Playing in 40 Celsius heat, the Monte Carlo-based Safarova made the most of some early Li double faults to get a break in the first game then held for a 2-0 lead.
Li, using ice to cool down barely 10 minutes into the match, held her next serve to stay in touch but Safarova was unrelenting, pushing Li around and gaining another break when the Chinese star netted a forehand.
Li, coached by Carlos Rodriguez, who used to mentor Belgian great Justine Henin, was struggling to find her range and making too many unforced errors.
Safarova held for a 5-1 lead and broke again to take the set in 27 minutes, with Li hitting just two winners and making 18 unforced errors in the set.
The left-hander comfortably held serve to open the second set and had a break point in the next, but Li rallied to stay alive.
She got her first glimmer of hope in the third game, when she earned a break point, but failed to capitalise and went 2-1 down.
The Chinese number one was under big pressure and faced two break points on her next serve, but dug deep to save both and it proved to be a turning point.
She promptly broke Safarova and then held to take a 3-2 lead, before the Czech prevailed in a long sixth game to break back.
Li was fighting to stay in the tournament and converted a break point as Safarova served for the match.
She clung on to her serve against a Safarova onslaught and saved a match point in the 12th to send it to a tiebreak, where she found a new lease of life to ensure a third set.
They exchanged breaks and it went to serve until the eighth game, when the Czech smashed a forehand into the net to put Li in front and she served for the match.