NEW YORK, Sept 3 (Reuters) - Li Na broke another barrier for Chinese tennis, becoming China’s first semi-finalist at the U.S. Open by beating Russian Ekaterina Makarova 6-4 6-7(5) 6-2 on Tuesday at windy Flushing Meadows.
The 31-year-old, fifth-seeded Li pumped both fists in joy after 24th seed Makarova sailed a backhand long to end the two-hour, 20-minute match at Arthur Ashe Stadium as the crowd showered her with cheers.
“For me, this is the first time to come to the semi-finals, so I‘m very proud of myself,” said Li, who looked about to claim victory in two sets after winning the first three points of the tiebreaker and holding a 4-2 lead.
“After I lose the second set, I was sad. But I just told myself to go point by point.”
Li’s win over the Russian left-hander followed a three-set victory by second seed Victoria Azarenka over Ana Ivanovic as order was restored after Monday’s shocking straight sets, fourth-round surrender by Roger Federer to Tommy Robredo.
Azarenka’s 4-6 6-3 6-4 victory completed the women’s quarter-finals field as their contest was postponed from Monday after a rain delay of nearly five hours at the soggy U.S. National Tennis Center.
The world number two Belarussian, U.S. Open runner-up last year to Serena Williams, will play unseeded Daniela Hantuchova of Slovakia in the quarter-finals.
On the men’s side, former champion Lleyton Hewitt’s brilliant run was stopped in the fourth round by determined Russian veteran Mikhail Youzhny.
Youzhny, the 21st seed, battled back from 1-4 in the fourth set and from 2-5 in the fifth set to claim a 6-3 3-6 6-7 (3) 6-4 7-5 victory over the 32-year-old unseeded Australian.
The 2001 U.S. Open champion Hewitt, mounting a comeback after a series of foot surgeries, was stopped one hurdle shy of reaching his first U.S. quarter-final in seven years.
Youzhny, just one year younger than Hewitt, will play either top seed Novak Djokovic or 43rd-ranked Marcel Granollers of Spain in the last eight.
The U.S. Open had been the last grand slam where Chinese women had stalled before reaching the final four.
Zheng Jie was the first Chinese player to reach a grand slam semi-final, making the last four at Wimbledon in 2008 and the Australian Open in 2010, but Li has enjoyed even greater success.
Two years ago, Li became the first Chinese to make a grand slam final when she finished runner-up in Australia and a few months later she won the 2011 French Open to become China’s first grand slam champion.
Li’s semi-final opponent will be either world number one Serena Williams or Spain’s Carla Suarez Navarro after they were scheduled to meet in Tuesday’s feature night match.
“I will lie down in the bed, take some chips and watch the match,” Li said about scouting her next opponent. “They will just fight and I’ll relax.”
Li took the fight to Makarova in her quarter-final, smashing 44 winners against just 15 for the more defensive 25-year-old Makarova, though the Chinese struggled with eight double faults.
Azarenka and former world number one Ivanovic had even more trouble serving in the day’s opening match, where holding serve was the exception rather than the rule.
In a match of 29 games, there were 16 service breaks with Azarenka fittingly ending the two-hour, 10-minute struggle by breaking Ivanovic for the ninth time of the contest, when Ivanovic netted a backhand on the fourth match point.
Azarenka had her serve broken seven times and committed nine double faults, while Ivanovic lost nine of her service games and made eight doubles.
The match was still in the balance with the players locked at 3-3 in the deciding set when Azarenka, who made the U.S. Open final last year, seized control.
Ivanovic had played a brilliant first set, cracking 11 winners off her big forehand and holding serve four times to seize the early advantage.
“It was a big battle. That’s what I was expecting from Ana,” said Azarenka.
Ivanovic, making a concerted effort to climb back up the rankings after a long slump, was downcast over missing out on reaching the quarter-finals.
“It’s very encouraging, because I know I‘m right there,” she said about her near miss. “It’s definitely a lot of positives to take from this week and this match. But it still doesn’t change. It’s disappointing and it hurts.” (Reporting by Larry Fine; Editing by Mark Lamport-Stokes)