Third Time Lucky For Li Na At Australian Open
Li Na took advantage of her second chance at the Australian Open.The Chinese tennis trailblazer was a point away from exiting in the third round but survived against Lucie Safarova and didn’t lose another set the rest of the tournament.
The world No. 4 beat diminutive dynamo Dominika Cibulkova 7-6 (7-3) 6-0 in Saturday’s final to collect a second grand slam title following her success at the 2011 French Open.
Li also made it third time lucky in Melbourne after defeats in the 2011 and 2013 finale.
“At least, you know, I made it,” Li told reporters. “Not like the last two times, always feeling (there was) one more step. But this time I’m so proud myself.”
The 31-year-old was a popular champion — receiving the lion’s share of applause when the players were introduced at Rod Laver Arena — and likely attracted even more fans thanks to her comical post-match speech on court.
Li began by thanking her agent, Max Eisenbud, who also represents Maria Sharapova.
“Max, my agent, thanks for making me rich,” said Li, named last year by Forbes as the third richest female athlete in the world behind Sharapova and Serena Williams with takings of $18.2 million.
Li later mentioned her husband Jiang Shan, who in the past has been the butt of the baseliner’s jokes.
“Now of course my husband is even famous in China,” she said. “You are a nice guy. Also you are so lucky to find me!”
The 5-foot-3 Cibulkova was appearing in her maiden grand slam final and a victory would have made the 24th-ranked Slovakian the joint shortest singles winner at a major in the Open Era.
No one would have begrudged her the title, too, since she had topped four players inside the top 20 including Sharapova and Agnieszka Radwanska. Li, meanwhile, didn’t face anyone inside the top 20.
“This was just a fantastic two weeks of my life,” said Cibulkova, who cried as she addressed the crowd. “This means a lot for our country and I’m happy I could be the one here for Slovakia.
“Maybe tomorrow morning I will be 100% proud of myself,” she later told reporters. “But now it’s just maybe like 50%.”
Expected to defeat Cibulkova — she had won all four previous meetings with the 24-year-old — Li proceeded to break early and took a 2-0 lead.
But she admitted to being nervous and after the hard-hitting Cibulkova saved a break point to avoid trailing 3-0, she rallied to grab a 4-3 lead.
“Today it was very dangerous,” Li’s coach Carlos Rodriguez, long associated with seven-time grand slam champion Justine Henin, told CNN. “You’re in the final for the third time, you’ve never been the favorite before, you are today, you have to deal with such a good player who has beaten the top five and top three during the second week.”
Li held serve under pressure at 4-5 and then broke for 6-5. Instead of kicking on, though, she missed a backhand down the line on set point and a tiebreak was needed to decide the opener.
Li took a convincing 5-1 lead as she settled down and once the set was decided, she relaxed — and Cibulkova couldn’t recover from the tiebreak.
“She was going for her shots,” Cibulkova told reporters. “After it was impossible for me to do something and be aggressive because she was just really, really playing well.”
Whereas the first set lasted 70 minutes, the second went a mere 27 minutes. Cibulkova won 12 points and sent a forehand long on match point to end Li’s disappointment in Melbourne.
“Finally I got her,” Li said, referring to the trophy.
On Sunday, Rafael Nadal goes for his 14th major when he faces Stanislas Wawrinka in the men’s final.
Nadal owns a 12-0 record against the Swiss, making his debut in a grand slam final like Cibulkova, without conceding a set.