By Alana Mitchelson
(January 25, 2014) MELBOURNE – Very few players in history have gone on to win a Grand Slam title after saving a match point but, on Saturday night, Li Na defied those odds to prove herself as a more than deserving Australian Open champion. It took her little over an hour-and-a-half to overcome slam final newbie Dominika Cibulkova in straight sets, 7-6(7-3), 6-0.
The two-time Australian Open runner-up has had her heart set on clinching this particular title for a few years now and so it seemed fitting for her to change into a T-shirt with Chinese characters iterating the very appropriate words “my heart has no limits”.
But the victory had not come without an abundance of hard work and having been beaten down a few times, before finally getting a taste for what it feels like to finish at the top of a Grand Slam. Li described the summation of her efforts in a single, telling word; “tough”.
During her first training session with coach Carlos Rodriguez, Li had deliberated over whether she would give up the game entirely and not go on another year. And in the third round of the tournament, Li saved a threatening match point against Lucie Safarova. She has also received much press in regards to her age since 31 is considered as post ‘prime’ years in her particular field of work.
After winning the title, Li celebrated the notion of being the oldest player to have won the tournament.
“Age is nothing,” Li asserted.
“I still can win a Grand Slam so I’m pretty happy with my age. I’ve got more experience on the court.”
Li did however experience some difficulty calming the nerves during the first set and made a notable number of forehand errors, plus a surprising two consecutive double faults.
Cibulkova too often tightened up on serve and her balls were launched at speeds significantly slower to that of her opponent’s. Her power especially fizzled upon her second serves which granted her an abysmal 21 per cent success rate with winning the point in the face of an aggressive Li Na. A total of seven double faults did not add to her resolve.
As the nerves settled, Li dominated play from the baseline. She challenged Cibulkova to play out of her comfort zone close at the baseline, pushing her back during the rallies and occasionally reeling her in towards the net.
Li ripped backhand winners down the line without fear, while a somewhat tentative Cibulkova hesitated to trust herself to go for the big shots and set up only three break point opportunities for herself throughout the match.
Cibulkova was content with the successful run she has experienced at the Australian Open this year and was proud to be the first Slovakian to have reached the Grand Final.
“After she won the first two games, she just relaxed,” Cibulkova said.
“She was more relaxed and she was going for her shots. After that, it was impossible for me to do something and be aggressive because she was just really, really playing well.
”She could push me from the first balls and I was under pressure all the time. Sometimes I’d catch myself running one metre behind the baseline. That’s not how I play. This is why she was better.
“I’m just 24 years old and have already played in a Grand Slam final. I feel like my game is there, to challenge the biggest names and to beat them.”
The Slovakian will rise to No. 13 in the WTA rankings come Monday, while Li will shoot up to No. 3 and only 11 points behind Victoria Azarenka.
”When she served at 15-40, I was thinking ‘okay, after I win the match, what should I do?’,” Li said, reflecting on her bizarre thought patters upon receiving a couple of match points.
“It’s amazing, I was already thinking about that,” she chuckled. “But after I lost one break point I was like ‘okay, don’t think. Just focus on this point.’ After I won the match, I was really, really excited. I think I have (tear) drops still coming down, you know. I tried to hug my team, but they were too high up, I couldn’t reach them.”
During the ceremony at the end of the match, Li gave one of her famous, funny speeches. She sent the crowd into hysterics which ended the night on a positive high with smiles all round.
For now, Li will return home to her family for some time off to celebrate before continuing on with her strict training schedule.
“This year, Chinese New Year is the 31st of January, year of the horse. I will go back to my home with my mom and be with my family for a couple days.
“I finally got it… I have to say, this is my favourite slam. I cannot wait to come back.”
Alana Mitchelson is a Melbourne-based freelance journalist covering the Australian Open for Tennis Panorama News. Follow her tournament updates on Twitter @TennisNewsTPN and read her personal website.