Li Na no longer a one-hit wonder
In recent years, size has mostly mattered in women's tennis. Bigger has almost always been better.
Dominika Cibulkova, who is listed at 5-foot-3, was not blessed with the standard stature of recent champions."It's not about how tall you are," she told reporters after her semifinal win over Agnieszka Radwanska. "You have to really want something and just believe in it. There is nothing more important than this."
Although heart is something the 24-year-old Slovakian has never lacked, her opponent in this Australian Open final, Li Na of China, has been famously flighty when points began to mean something. Cibulkova was playing her first major final, but Li was appearing in her first Grand Slam singles final as the favorite.
No. 4-seeded Li, a finalist in Melbourne for the third time in four years, previously lost to Kim Clijsters in 2011 and to two-time defending champion Victoria Azarenka last season -- both in three sets.
How would she handle the immense pressure in the Grand Slam she knows so well?
Well, after a nervous start, just swell. One month shy of her 32nd birthday, Li hammered out a 7-6 (3), 6-0 victory and hoisted her second major trophy. She finished with four more winners (34) than unforced errors, as tribute to her perseverance. And don't forget, she saved a match point in her third-round match.
When Cibulkova's loose forehand strayed long, Li simply stood at the baseline and smiled. After shaking Cibulkova's hand and accepting a hug, she walked slowly toward her box, scaled a chair -- and shook hands with all of her supporters, including her husband.
Afterward, she thanked those people in characteristically humorous fashion.
"Thanks for my agent, Max," she said of IMG's Max Eisenbud. "Make me rich. Thanks a lot."
She had praise for her coach, Carlos Rodriguez, and even her beleaguered husband, Jiang "Dennis" Shan.
"My husband," she said, smiling. "You are famous in China. My hitting partner, fix the drink, fix the racket. Thanks a lot. You are a nice guy.
"Also you are so lucky -- for me."
The last 30-something to win the Australian Open women's title was Margaret Court in 1973. Li, who won the 2011 French Open, has now left the building of one-hit wonders.
Coming in, it didn't seem possible. Serena Williams had won two of the past three majors, four of the previous six -- and nine of the past 21. But, for the second straight year, she was dismissed early, this time by Ivanovic in the fourth round. No. 2 Azarenka, a two-time defending champion, and No. 3 Maria Sharapova were also long gone when the final was contested.
In five meetings with Cibulkova, Li has won all five -- and 10 of 11 sets. The first Slovakian Grand Slam finalist comes from a country of 5.5 million. As opposed to the Chinese city of Wuhan, population approximately 9 million.
Through the course of this tournament, it was Cibulkova who did more of the heavy lifting. She took out No. 3 Sharapova, No. 5 Radwanska and No. 11 Simona Halep. The best Li faced were No. 22 Ekaterina Makarova, No. 26 Lucie Safarova and No. 28 Flavia Pennetta.
Still, she beat the players who were placed in front of her. With Cibulkova, it was no different. Almost immediately, Li collected the match's first break of serve, but you kept waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Sure enough, in the sixth game, Li faced break point -- and knocked a double fault well long to even the match at 3-all. With Cibulkova looking for her first lead, she had three game points at 4-all but failed to cash them. A double fault betrayed her nerves, but no fewer than four forehand errors brought the match back to on serve.
At 5-all, a Cibulkova double fault made it 15-30. Li's sharp backhand crosscourt winner brought her to the threshold of the key break. A deep ball from the baseline forced a Cibulkova backhand into the net.
Serving for the first set at 6-5, Li actually forged a set point. But she yanked a backhand wide. Cibulkova went after Li's first serve and followed with a superb forehand winner. Another deep forehand forced a backhand into the net, and that delivered the two into a pivotal tiebreaker.
In that potentially crippling crucible, Li finally found her composure. She hung in on the rallies, and it was Cibulkova who unraveled. Two backhands into the net gave Li the frame, which has historically been a good omen. Twenty-seven of the previous 29 major finals between women went to the one who won the first set.
Li dropped her first two points of the second set, but rallied to hold. Then she broke Cibulkova to take a 2-0 lead and the hook had been set.
"I don't really know where to start," Cibulkova said afterward, holding her runner-up trophy. "This was just a fantastic two weeks of my life. I think I'm going to cry."
And she did.
"Li Na," Cibulkova concluded, "she had a great tournament; she deserves to be the winner."