For the third time in the last four years, Li Na is one of the last two women standing at the Australian Open.
But she would have left Australia a week ago if her third-round opponent, Lucie Safarova, had not missed a backhand by 2 inches on match point. The 2 inches, Li said after that victory, saved her tournament. If the shot had been in, Li added, her whole team would have been on the way to the airport.
Li's coach, Carlos Rodriguez, who previously guided Justine Henin to seven Grand Slam titles, called Li's draw "tricky, difficult, stressful." He said Li had been unsettled at the start of the tournament by having to play up-and-coming 16-year-olds in her first two matches.
"She didn't know them, and that put her in a very difficult emotional situation, especially to play the third match," Rodriguez said. "It was very difficult to handle, first, because Safarova played a great match, and second, she was a little bit unstable. And after that match, it's like all the parts are coming together."
The next three victories were impressively routine for Li, who has struggled with consistency for much of her career. She lost only two games to 22nd-seeded Ekaterina Makarova of Russia in the fourth round and only four games to 28th-seeded Flavia Pennetta of Italy in the quarterfinals. Then Li won 20 of the first 23 points against 30th-seeded Eugenie Bouchard of Canada in the semifinals before hanging on for a 6-2, 6-4 victory.
The fourth-seeded Li will enter Saturday's match against 20th-seeded Dominika Cibulkova as the clear favorite. In that way, the match is different from Li's three previous Grand Slam finals, including the one she won at the 2011 French Open.
"That is the difficult thing for her," Rodriguez said of her new status. "You are not the outsider anymore; you are No. 4. And on paper, you are the favorite. How to handle that, and how to get the best of yourself on Saturday, it's new for us. Because in all the finals that she played before, she wasn't the favorite. It's going to be another approach, and another psychological position.
"Don't think about winning the Grand Slam. You know that you're out there to win. Put it on the side, and focus on what you want to do on court in order to try to achieve your goals. It's the most difficult to do because it's like: 'I'm the favorite! I can do it now!' But at the end of the day, it's 50-50."
Rodriguez, who is from Argentina, has worked with Li since the summer of 2012. He tried to understand her mindset as well as the Chinese norms and expectations that had formed it. Li and Rodriguez have become one of the most effective player-coach teams when it comes to communication.
Asked about Li's greatest trait, Rodriguez said: "She likes to continue to understand, to learn, and she listens. And she shares. And when you have a 31-year-old player, a champion like her, who continues to learn, to improve, that is the best quality."
Li's opponent in the final, Cibulkova, is a 5-foot-3 Slovak whose best quality may be her outsize belief, which accompanies a powerful, attacking style not usually seen from players her height.
"Even if you are tall, it doesn't mean that you are 100 percent going to make it, you know," Cibulkova said. "It's just you have to really want something and just believe in it, you know. There is nothing more important than this." Aside from being one of the shortest players, Cibulkova, 24, is one of the most boisterous. Many of the points she wins are quickly followed by a shout of "Pod'me," which is Slovak for "Let's go."
"I have it since I was little kid," Cibulkova said of her on-court energy. "When I play my best tennis, that's where you can see like the power and the fight. You know, you have to have something extra if you want to be one of the best tennis players and you are not the tallest, as I said. So, yeah, this is what is my extra."
As Li was in her earlier years, Cibulkova has been streaky in her career. She has played well enough in stretches to reach the quarterfinals or better at all four Grand Slam events, but she has never made the top 10 and would not even crack it if she won her first Grand Slam title Saturday night.
"It will be 'the biggest match of my life,'" Cibulkova said, making quotation marks in the air with her fingers. "But I will not go on the court like that. There is no pressure. I'm playing finals, so there is nothing better."
Cibulkova said she drew inspiration from her close friend Marion Bartoli, who became an unlikely Wimbledon champion last summer, winning the tournament despite being ranked 15th.
"I knew she was working like so hard for it," Cibulkova said, adding, "When she won it, I knew, like, everything is possible."