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Thursday, January 23, 2014
Updated: January 24, 8:20 AM ET
Women's final a delightful surprise

By Melissa Isaacson
espnW.com

MELBOURNE, Australia -- There are favorites and there are favorites, and Li Na is both.

Everyone's bet to win her second Grand Slam title Saturday night at the Australian Open after two weeks of guts and excellence, everyone's choice to win after the same two weeks of fun and laughs.

She is the most famous tennis player in China, with 120 million people watching her win the French Open three years ago. She names her rackets (Li Na 1, Li Na 2, etc.) and worries about hurting any of their feelings, and lists not falling on her head as her top goal for Saturday's final.

Li Na
After a second-round loss at the French Open a year ago, Li Na considered an early retirement.

She wasn't supposed to be here. Really wasn't after she was down a match point in the third round against Lucie Safarova, but also logically wasn't expected to be here considering the strength of the field.

In a tournament in which everyone assumed Serena Williams would meet the winner of the Victoria Azarenka-Maria Sharapova semifinal, they got Dominika Cibulkova beating Agnieszka Radwanska for the right to play Li, who dispatched 19-year-old Eugenie Bouchard in straight sets.

"Sorry I won match," Li said in her courtside interview Thursday, with a wave to "Genie's Army," a strange group of young Australian men who latched onto Bouchard and became her cheering section after the first round. "If you guys [aren't] happy, I'll go home."

She would have last week if not for a forehand that sailed just inches past the baseline on match point for Safarova. Afterward, Li's coach, Carlos Rodriguez, gave her a little lecture on being too passive.

"I really make him sad, he was so pissed," she said.

Carlos was a little more thoughtful but just as blunt six months ago, Li related, when she wanted to retire following her second-round loss at the French Open and some especially harsh treatment in the Chinese media.

After a trip home to talk to her mother followed by a quarterfinal loss in Eastbourne, she endured a quiet car ride to Wimbledon with Rodriguez.

"When we [were] arriving in Wimbledon, I say to Carlos, 'Hey, Carlos, look, I want to retire,' " Li said. "And normally I would think that Carlos for sure would say, 'No, don't do that, like we try,' but Carlos was like, 'OK, let's go home. Yeah, go.' And I was like, 'What?'

"In Chinese way, we didn't like to speak out, so everything just holds [inside], so he [said], 'You should try to speak out to let us know what happens.' I was like, 'OK, maybe we try, the last tournament, to see how it's going in Wimbledon. If going well, I will continue. If not, maybe just over.' So he was like, 'OK, let's try it. One more chance.'"

Li promises she was not kidding, but a gutty 8-6 third-set victory in the third round at Wimbledon against Klara Zakopalova convinced her that her career was worth saving and her dream of being a housewife could wait. Her quarterfinal finish after that barely mattered.

It is every tennis fan's gain that Li is still around. She has dropped just one set en route to the final, where she will meet another player who is very easy to like, Cibulkova.

Dominika Cibulkova
What a difference a year makes. Dominika Cibulkova lost in the second round at the Australian Open in 2013.

All smiles as she advanced to her first Grand Slam final, the 5-foot-3 Cibulkova has sailed through the draw in similarly easy fashion, her past four victories coming against higher-ranked opponents, including No. 3 seed Maria Sharapova and No. 5 seed Radwanska.

The No. 20 seed, Cibulkova, 24, is itching to prove herself against Li, 31, seeded No. 4 and playing in her third Grand Slam final.

"This top-10 talk, I don't want to talk about it anymore," Cibulkova said good-naturedly Thursday. "So many years that everybody kept telling me, 'You should be top-10. Why you not top-10?' I'm just not.

"So, we'll see what's going to happen. If I play like this, it might happen."

Cibulkova, who trails 4-0 in the head-to-head with Li, the last match a two-set loss on hard court, is determined to enjoy herself, she said, after watching a weary Radwanska fall flatter than a crepe in their semifinal.

"I don't want to suffer on the court," she said. "Yeah, that's what I want to do …

"[Li] already won a Grand Slam, so she knows how it is. I'm playing finals, so that's something beautiful. It's like a dream."

With quotes like that, this final can hardly miss.