On a day when the weather in Melbourne turned mild and friendly, Li Na turned the heat on with her game to breeze past the rattled Flavia Pennetta 6-2, 6-2 in a quick and easy 67 minute workout on Margaret Court Arena. The Chinese, nearly 32, showed no signs of her age as she dominated proceedings in both sets with a consummate display of aggressive tennis. The win helped Li reach a fifth Grand Slam semi-final and make a third appearance at this stage of the Australian Open, where she has been finalist in 2011 and 2013.
Li was on the ascendancy as soon as the match began, striking ferocious winners off either flank to run away with a break of serve from 30-30 in the first game. Pennetta came right back at her opponent, a backhand winner down the line giving the Italian two break points. But Li responded with a troika of service winners to keep her opponent at bay and consolidate to 2-0.
The fourth seed continued to dominate and Pennetta was eyeing a bagel as Li cracked a backhand return winner to gain a point for a 5-0 lead; Pennetta lent a hand throwing in a double fault, her second, to help Li gain a stranglehold on the first set with a third break of serve. Serving to take the set, Li suffered a brief stutter though and a hungry Pennetta pounced to try and get her foot back in the door.
Li had two set points at 40-15 in the sixth game, but the proud Italian produced a couple of crisp backhand winners to force the game to deuce. Probably rattled by the sudden resurgence of the Italian, Li produced a pair of forehand errors to drop the game. The seventh game went to deuce too, but the world No.29 rescued herself with an ace and a service winner to keep the set alive.
Even as Pennetta threatened to mount a rearguard action, the Chinese stepped in on a juicy short ball to crunch a forehand winner and gain three set points in the eighth game. The set was in the bag for the world No.4 when Pennetta failed to clear the net on the next point, another errant forehand the culprit on this occasion. Li was making her opponent pay for her tame 55% first serves made, to win 15 of 26 service return points to dominate the 35 minute first set.
A brilliant backhand winner gave Li two match points at 40-15 in the eighth game of the second set. Pennetta failed to take advantage of a harmless second serve and Li ran into the net to finish the match with a signature forehand cross court winner. Asked if she was getting better towards the business end, Li acknowledged that things seem to have turned after her third round match over Lucie Safarova, where she saved match point to stay on in Melbourne.
In the end it was just a one sided contest, where Li packed too many weapons for her lesser ranked opponent. Pennetta had a meagre 39% first serve rate through the match and Li took advantage by winning as many as 20 of 33 second serve points to pin her opponent to the wall. A positive winner-error differential of 6 for Li compared very favourably against -13 for the Italian.
In her fourth semi-final in five years, Li seemed buoyed by the fact that the top half turned lighter with the exit of Serena Williams in the fourth round. Her opponent there – the winner between Ana Ivanovic and Eugenie Bouchard – may not allow Li the freedom to dictate terms as she did in the quarters, but she looks good for a third final if she continues playing the way she did today.