Li Na reaches Aussie Open final
MELBOURNE, Australia -- When Li Na talks about not tripping up as being the key to converting her third Australian Open final appearance into a major title, she means it literally.
No. 4-seeded Li advanced to her third final in four years at Melbourne Park with a 6-2, 6-4 win over 19-year-old Canadian Eugenie Bouchard on Thursday. No. 20-seeded Dominika Cibulkova later trounced 2012 Wimbledon finalist Agnieszka Radwanska 6-1, 6-2 to reach her first Grand Slam final.
Li twisted her ankle and fell over twice before losing the 2013 Australian Open final to Victoria Azarenka.
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She tumbled to the court after twisting her left ankle in the second set and twisted the ankle again in the third, falling and hitting her head twice on the court. Obviously, it put her off her game.
"I think is the third time, so pretty close to the trophy," said Li, who also lost the 2011 final here to Kim Clijsters before rebounding five months later to claim her one and only major at the French Open. "Yeah, at least I try to not fall down this time, because last year in the final I think I played well but I only can say I was unlucky. At least I'll try to enjoy and stay healthy."
Li was the only major winner remaining in the semis after Serena Williams lost in the fourth round -- where Cibulkova also upset Maria Sharapova in three sets -- and Azarenka's 18-match winning streak at Melbourne Park ended in a quarterfinal loss to Radwanska.
The 31-year-old Chinese star considered quitting the tour after the French Open last year, when she was beaten in the second round. But she decided to play on, and reached the Wimbledon quarterfinals and the U.S. Open semifinals.
After saving a match point in the third round against Lucie Safarova, she is the favorite to finally win an Australian title.
In a women's tournament full of surprising results, Cibulkova's run has been the most dramatic. The diminutive Slovakian has won all but one of her matches in straight sets, including three in one hour or less.
But even Cibulkova was stunned that her first win in a Grand Slam semifinal took only 1 hour and 10 minutes. After Radwanska held in the third game, Cibulkova won the next eight in a dominating roll. Radwanska won two games back-to-back, but then lost two more to surrender meekly only 24 hours after an impressive win over No. 2-ranked Azarenka.
"When you look at it this way, it is nice for me. I didn't spend so much time on the court," said Cibulkova, who dropped onto her back on the court to celebrate her victory. "I'm in the finals of a Grand Slam -- the only three-set match (so far) was against Sharapova. That's something unbelievable.
"I was going into every match, you know, just to play my game and play well. This is what happened."
Cibulkova had lost her only previous semifinal at a major -- at the 2009 French Open -- and had lost four of her five previous tour-level matches against Radwanska, including a 6-0, 6-0 defeat in the Sydney final last year.
Touted as the shortest woman in the top 50 at 1.61-meters (5-foot-3), Cibulkova has shocked her bigger rivals with the power in her ground strokes.
"It's something inside of me," she said, "I was born with it. It's my gift -- that's how I play."
Li raced out to a 5-0 lead in 14 minutes against Bouchard, who had her own personal cheering section, the "Genie Army," serenade her throughout the match.
Bouchard, playing only her fourth Grand Slam tournament, was seeded 30th and just the second Canadian to reach a major semifinal.
"I think maybe she will be best player in the world. But today (I'm) so lucky," said Li, who jokingly apologized to the Genie Army. "Sorry about that. If you guys be happy, I will go home."
Not even The Bieb could help Bouchard on Thursday.
The Montreal native, who received a tweet from fellow Canadian Justin Bieber wishing her luck before her semifinal match, started slowly and was outhit down the stretch.
Bouchard didn't win a point in her first three service games as she overcame nerves, but caused trouble for Li in the second set.
She said her sudden rise in a major shouldn't be surprising.
"I wouldn't say I exceeded my expectations, but I'm happy with how I did," Bouchard said. "I always want to do better. I've been working hard my whole life to do this ... It's not an overnight thing."
Bouchard could have been expected to be nervous playing in her first slam semifinal at such a young age. But she said after the match she expected more from herself.
"I'm never satisfied with losing," she said. "I always want to go further and do better."
The consolation might have been the tweet from Bieber, whom she bashfully admitted in an on-court interview a few days previously that she'd like to take out on a date.
"I was excited," she said of the tweet, one of few times she smiled in her post-match news conference.
Bouchard is a rising star in the women's game -- she was the Newcomer of the Year on the WTA Tour in 2013 after making her first tournament final and rising from No. 144 in the rankings to No. 32. She's expected to crack the top 20 next week.
But she really caused the tennis world to take notice with her run at Melbourne Park.
Australian Open 2014 - Women's Final
(4) Li Na vs (20) Dominika Cibulkova, Saturday - 3 AM ET on ESPN
• Li: 4-0 in career vs Cibulkova (1st career meeting at Grand Slam)
• Li: 3rd career Australian Open final appearance (lost previous 2 in 2011 and 2013)
• Li: 26-4 in last 5 years at Australian Open)
• Cibulkova: 6 matches won at this Australian Open equals total matches won in previous 5 Grand Slam appearances
• Cibulkova: 7 of 12 sets won this tournament have been by a score of 6-1 or 6-0
-- ESPN Stats & Information
Former No. 1 Ana Ivanovic, who lost to Bouchard in the quarterfinals, also predicted the teenager would have a bright future.
"She's definitely brave. She's young. She has nothing to lose," Ivanovic said.
All Bouchard needs now is more experience playing in big occasions like the latter stages of a major. This much was evident when she went down 5-0 in the first set after just 14 minutes as the spectators were still finding their seats.
"I try to think of it as just a normal match, but it feels bigger," she said. "It makes it more important to stay focused. I came out and I wasn't quite playing very well."
After each win at the Australian Open this week, the "Genie Army" has given Bouchard a different stuffed animal as a gift -- a kangaroo, kookaburra, wombat and a koala. Her supporters added another animal to her collection Thursday, which she brought to her news conference.
"It's an emu," Bouchard said. "Her name is Sheila."
A fitting reminder of her time in Australia, to be sure.
Copyright 2014 by The Associated Press
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