MELBOURNE, Jan 23 (Reuters) - Eugenie Bouchard's Australian Open semi-final defeat at the hands of Chinese veteran Li Na would only provide her with a further springboard to greater success, the teenager said on Thursday.
The promising 19-year-old stormed into the semi-finals at Melbourne Park with an aggressive style of tennis that won her a boisterous fan club, who labelled themselves 'Genie's Army' before she met Li, who was playing near the top of her game.
Li beat Bouchard 6-2 6-4 in just under 90 minutes and while the Chinese had jumped out to an early 5-0 lead in the first set, the young Canadian showed signs midway through the match that she had the skills to mix it with the world's best.
"I wouldn't say I exceeded my expectations ...I feel like I belong in the top levels of the game," she asserted in a cool, clinical fashion in stark contrast to the mindset evident amongst many of her peers.
"To me it's not a surprise (to reach the semi-finals). I've been working hard my whole life to do this, play at grand slams and do well.
"It's not an overnight thing and it's not a surprise to me.
"I'm never satisfied with losing. I'm always disappointed. I always want to go further and do better."
Her confidence that she can do better, and Li said immediately after the semi-final she thought her teen opponent could reach number one in the world, has been highlighted by an impressive 12 months.
A former junior Wimbledon champion, Bouchard was ranked 147th in the world at last year's Australian Open and did not make it out of qualifying, losing to Russia's Daria Garvilova, who was ranked 78-places lower.
She then made steady progress up the rankings with a second round appearance at Roland Garros followed by a third round loss at Wimbledon and she cracked the top-50 after reaching the semi-finals at Quebec City last September.
A loss to Australia's Sam Stosur in the Osaka final last October ensured she ended the year ranked 32nd and was seeded for the season-opening grand slam.
She romped through against players ranked lower than her before she beat 14th-seed Ana Ivanovic in the quarter-finals.
"I felt I was getting better as the matches went on, which is a good thing," Bouchard added.
"I want to build on that and practice and keep raising my level. For sure I'll walk away with confidence."
It was not the only thing she will walk away with.
Bouchard will be ranked inside the top-20 at the conclusion of the tournament and will have doubled her career earnings with the $540,000 payday by reaching the semi-finals.
She also have five cuddly toys to pack into her bags, gifts from Genie's Army, with the final one an emu named "Sheila" that she received on Thursday.
And possibly most important for a teenage girl who admitted to having a crush on pop singer Justin Bieber, he now knows who she is after he tweeted a 'good luck' message before the semi-final.
"I was excited," she said with a smile when asked about the tweet from her compatriot before her mind went back to her 'job'.
"It's exciting to be here, but at the same time I want to do better and do more. So it's just kind of like my job.
"I'm just going to go back to the practice courts and keep working hard.
"I'm happy with how I've played. I feel I've been playing well and improving through the tournament.
"It's just a process. I learned a lot last year. I've slowly
been making my way up. I don't want to stop here." (Writing by Greg Stutchbury in Wellington; Editing by Patrick Johnston)
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- Eugenie Bouchard