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Wednesday, January 22, 2014
Updated: January 24, 12:35 PM ET
Cibulkova, Li ready for challenge

By Melissa Isaacson
espnW.com

MELBOURNE, Australia -- Given the choice in sports between embracing the big moment and shrinking from it, there is compelling evidence that the competitor leaving the playing field while using her towel to cover the television camera is probably not the one who rose to the challenge.

That was Agnieszka Radwanska on Thursday in her Australian Open semifinal against Dominika Cibulkova. Shockingly, almost offensively, the No. 5 seed followed a performance for the ages against two-time defending champion Victoria Azarenka with an effort one might expect from a frightened first-timer.

Cibulkova
Dominika Cibulkova reached her first career Grand Slam final with a statement win over Agnieszka Radwanska.

The 2012 Wimbledon runner-up, who reached her third semifinal in the past seven Grand Slam events and who is no rookie at 24 years old, was chewed up and spit out by No. 24 seed Cibulkova, who seized the opportunity and never let go in a 6-1, 6-2 runaway.

And now Cibulkova, the first Slovak to get through to a Grand Slam singles final, moves on to play No. 4 Li Na, who advanced by virtue of her 6-2, 6-4 victory over No. 30 Eugenie Bouchard in Thursday's first match.

The 19-year-old Canadian and darling of the tournament, Bouchard was thoroughly schooled by the 2011 French Open champion and two-time Australian Open finalist for the better part of the first set.

But unlike Radwanska in the nightcap, Bouchard was neither uninspired nor overwhelmed, simply inexperienced. Playing in her first Grand Slam semi, it took her a while to get used to the rhythm of Li's game, and when she did, Bouchard, who trailed 5-0 in the first set, won four of the next five games to take a 2-0 lead in the second.

But Li would break right back. In a set with five service breaks in all, she took advantage of Bouchard's poor first-serve percentage (44 percent in the second set) and running her from corner to corner.

"She played really well," Bouchard said of her 31-year-old opponent. "You have to give her credit. All of her groundstrokes were like a foot from the baseline and she was very consistent. Even her serves were really solid.

"I felt like she didn't give me much breathing space, much room to do what I wanted to do on the court. I tried to put pressure on, but she just played too good at moments."

Li described herself as "really tight" at the end of the match.

"It doesn't matter how many semis you play," Li said. "You're still nervous because [it's] the semis."

It was tough to tell, however, as she ripped a backhand cross-court passing shot for the winner on match point after a stirring 10-shot rally.

It was a dramatic contrast to the afternoon's second semifinal. Cibulkova, playing in her second Grand Slam semifinal five years after her first, walked onto the court with a big smile, while Radwanska was stone-faced throughout, and it was reflected in their play.

Radwanska blamed her performance on the quick turnaround after Wednesday's quarterfinals, though her opponent also had to play on one day of rest (all four of the men's semifinalists will have two days of rest after their quarterfinal matches).

"I feel like [I was] in slow motion today," Radwanska said. "I had a couple tough matches, especially yesterday. I think I was not fresh enough."

Interestingly, Radwanska defeated Azarenka 6-1, 6-3 on Wednesday, while it took Cibulkova three sets to get past No. 11 Simona Halep 3-6, 6-4, 6-1.

"But I think I spend twice more hours than her on court," Radwanska said of the whole tournament. "I think that's it."

Indeed, Radwanska worked hard in her quarterfinal match, expending an energy and enthusiasm that simply was not evident against Cibulkova.

And Cibulkova, battle-tested after mowing through a draw that included victories over No. 16 Carla Suarez Navarro, followed by No. 3 Maria Sharapova in the fourth round and Halep in the quarters, was clearly not in awe.

"I wanted to enjoy [it]," Cibulkova said. "Of course it was not easy when I was up in the second set. The thought started to come that I could win, the result and everything. [But] I have to say, I was 100 percent ready for it and I was just doing what I had to do. That's why I won."

That, and blasting 88 percent of Radwanska's second serves for winners while breaking her six times and saving 8 of 9 break points on her own serve.

"It's very disappointing, especially that I didn't play, you know, a top-5 player," Radwanska said. "I think she had one of the best tournaments that she [has] played in her career. Good for her."

Radwanska now leads their head-to-head series 5-2. Cibulkova's previous win came last fall at Stanford, a three-setter in come-from-behind fashion. But Cibulkova said that match had no bearing on Thursday.

"It's different. This was [a] semifinal of the Grand Slam, so it's [a] big thing," Cibulkova said. " ... You have to be 100 percent sure you can do it. Today I was doing everything right. I was going for my shots. I was just doing everything perfect. Maybe she was more nervous. You never know."

When it came down to it, Radwanska said, she was simply spent after one of the best matches in her career and the most impressive overall performance in the women's draw these two weeks.

"I [felt] real slow today," she said. "I was late for pretty much every ball. I could really feel that it was not really my day. Of course I was trying, especially in the second set, to come back. I think I just wanted [to], but my legs, not really."