Saturday night in Melbourne may be the biggest night in women's tennis since Serena and Venus Williams first met in the final of the 2001 U.S. Open. True, Serena hasn't played since Wimbledon and Venus had to retire from her match at this year's Australian Open. And Justine Henin just retired and Maria Sharapova is a shell of her former self. It wouldn't seem like a time for a seminal moment in the sport. But don't tell that to Li Na.
With her win over No. 1 seed Caroline Wozniacki on Thursday, the 28-year-old became the first Chinese woman to advance to the final of a Grand Slam tournament. In a country that has made a national hero out of NBA player Yao Ming and hurdler Liu Xiung, Li could become the next breakout sporting star in the country of 1.3 billion. Think that might provide a little spark to the WTA? More than that. It'd be a coup for tennis to gain traction in a nation that, 20 years ago, was so ignorant of tennis that when Li told her mother that she was switching from badminton to tennis, her mother responded, "What's tennis?"
Li's run to the finals in Melbourne and possibly engaging a Chinese audience in a new sport would be a big enough story. But the fact that Li speaks English and manages to be funny, personable and engaging only makes for a better story. Witness her interview after that win over Wozniacki:
Snoring husbands? Reluctant mothers? Jokes about playing only for prize money? That's fantastic stuff and funnier than anything I saw on Leno, Letterman or Stewart this week. A star is born. More of that and Li could become the tennis version of Yao Ming: huge in China, adored in the United States. (Minus the injuries, we hope.)
Li will play the winner of Kim Clijsters-Vera Zvonareva match in Saturday's final (which will be aired live in the United States at 3 a.m. ET). If she wins, she'll move to No. 5 in the WTA rankings, another milestone for a player from China.