MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Andy Murray charged into the Australian Open final on Thursday, giving fresh hope to Britain that the country’s long wait for another men’s grand slam champion may be nearing an end.
It has been 74 years since a British man last won a grand slam singles title but the jokes about long trousers and wooden rackets could soon be over after Murray booked a place in Sunday’s final by beating Croatian Marin Cilic 3-6 6-4 6-4 6-2.
“This is the best I’ve played at a slam,” said Murray. “I want to win it, obviously for the people that I work with, for my parents... then doing it for British tennis and British sport would be excellent.”
Serena Williams and Justine Henin blasted their way into Saturday’s women’s final by killing off China’s hopes of a first grand slam finalist.
This tournament may one day be remembered as a watershed for Asian tennis with two Chinese reaching the last four for the first time, but the new world order was left on hold a little longer.
Williams used all her power and big-match experience to beat Li Na 7-6 7-6 in an absorbing centre court contest to remain on track to successfully defend the title she won for the fourth time last year.
“I am happy I was able to pull it out, it was really close,” Williams said.
“I wasn’t at my best today but I’m still here — which is shocking — and I’m just going to do whatever I can to stay.”
Henin, in only her second tournament since coming out of retirement, demolished Zheng Jie 6-1 6-0 to continue her fairytale comeback to the sport she once dominated.
The Belgian, improving with every match, was at her ruthless best against Zheng, wrapping up a one-sided win in 51 minutes.
“The dream continues,” Henin said. “I’m going to play the number one in the world. She’s a fighter as she’s proved here, and I’ll do my best and try and get the title.”
Already the first Chinese to make the semi-finals of a grand slam, Li and Zheng had been bidding to become the first players from the world’s most populous country to reach a final.
Their unlikely run to the semi-finals captured the imagination of millions of people in their homeland and gave the tennis world a peek at the future of the game.
“This was good for both players and, of course, good for Chinese tennis,” Li said. “I think if (Chinese) children saw this, they will have more confidence. They might think some day they can do this.”
Murray provided a brilliant exhibition of shot-making, including one outrageous winner when he darted from the net to retrieve a lob then spun around on the baseline and whipped a forehand straight past a bewildered Cilic.
“Honestly, I actually practise that shot quite a lot in training!” Murray said.
The Croatian, who had survived three gruelling five-setters to reach his first grand slam semi-final, was in control of the match until that point.
“I think he got a little bit of the momentum going and wasn’t easy after to get back into it,” Cilic said.
By reaching the semis, Li will become the first Chinese to make the top 10 when the new rankings are released on Monday.
The 16th seed showed why she is one of the most improved players in the game by pushing Williams to the limit.
The 28-year-old American, who is also in the doubles final with sister Venus, was panting heavily as Li forced her to run from side to side and was relieved to avoid a third set.
“I knew (I had) to play the tiebreaks well. I knew I had to get in the lead so if I choked I had some points to choke on,” Williams said. “She’s a fighter and I knew I had to close it out.”
Henin won the Australian Open in 2004 and made the final in 2006, but quit while trailing Amelie Mauresmo in the second set, complaining she was ill.
The Belgian, who has not yet qualified for a ranking, became only the second wildcard to reach a grand slam final.
“I was curious about how I would feel,” Henin said. “Today was perfect... it was good to have a pretty easy match.
“I can’t wait for the final. It’s an amazing feeling to have the chance to play another final in Melbourne. It’s fantastic for me.”
Editing by Ken Ferris