After making the semifinals of a Grand Slam for the first time in 18 months, Li Na has become the happy, humorous Chinese ace of the courts again.
Fans have learned to stay in the packed 15,000-seat Rod Laver Arena after her matches in anticipation of her witty responses during on-court interviews, and they haven't been disappointed.
"Since Carlos (Rodriguez) joined my team last year, I think my husband has felt much easier in his life. We don't have to shout at each other on and off the court," Li said of her spouse, Jiang Shan, after beating fourth seed Agnieszka Radwanska, 7-5, 6-3, in their Australian Open quarterfinal clash on Tuesday.
Li's aggressive tennis wowed the fans, but what is also impressive is her greater composure and ability to deal with adversity.
"She looks unstoppable if she can play her game with a calm mind, whoever she faces," Qiao Guoli, a sophomore majoring in accounting at Deakin University in Melbourne, told China Daily after Li's victory.
Qiao was accompanied by three Chinese schoolmates, who all booked the quarterfinal tickets weeks ago, to cheer on Li and they hope to return with a bigger group for her semifinal on Thursday.
"It's kind of harder to purchase semi tickets now, but we will try to bring more people here. Every time a player from our own country plays here we feel responsible to support them," Qiao said.
After reaching her third semi in Melbourne over the past four years, Li will meet her biggest challenge to date in Russian world No 2 Maria Sharapova, who thrashed compatriot Ekaterina Makarova, 6-2, 6-2, in a mere 66 minutes.
Both have reached the final four without dropping a set and are enjoying great momentum.
"Maria is on fire, so I think it's going to be a battle for Li. To be honest, it will be 50-50 for me. They are both playing very good tennis this week. Definitely, it's hard to say," said Radwanska, who stunned Li at the Sydney International, a warm-up event to the Open.
Five-time Grand Slam singles champion Martina Hingis, who is playing in the legends section this week, was impressed by Li's solid run (13-1) this year but was reluctant to pick a winner.
"I think she (Li) is always one of the favorites to win any tournament," the Swiss diva told China Daily at a promotional event on Monday.
"Since the French Open, she hasn't been able to perform at her highest level at a Grand Slam. But here, it's probably the event she can most likely win. But it will be hard to beat Serena (Williams) or Maria Sharapova on the way."
However, Li does have some outside support.
"She could beat her (Sharapova) two years ago, why can't she do it now as she's been calmer during tough point," Justine Bergman, a reporter with Associated Press, told China Daily.
According to a poll on ifeng.com, 50 percent of participants (about 3,400) believe "Li has improved overall skills and boasts a legitimate chance to win another major" while 18 percent of voters said her run "will end at the semis".
"I think if she continues to deliver her best, like she's been doing this week, Sharapova won't be her last opponent here," Austin Brooks, a local supporter of Li, said after watching the Sharapova match.
Sharing the same sports agent (Max Eisenbud of IMG) with Sharapova, Li said there were no secrets between them as her former coach Thomas Hogstedt now serves the Russian.
"She's a more aggressive player on the court. She's fighting a lot and I never expect an easy match against her," said Li, who will rise to No 5 in the world when the WTA rankings are updated next week.
"We've played against each other so many times before Thomas was my coach and after," she said. "Max has been my manager since I was 11 years old. We've faced enough times that we know each other's game so well, and at the end, it's all about execution and not the other factors."