When the familiar Chinese, Li Na came to the Rod Laver Arena on Saturday evening to play the Australian Open final, for the third time in the last four years, it was impossible to predict, if she would be lucky this time. The fourth seed has had a rather easy passage into the final, except in her match against the No. 26 seed, Lucie Safarova of the Czech Republic, who almost beat Li Na in a third-round match. That match, played on January 17, 2014, went to three sets and lasted for two and half hours. Li Na had lost the first set 1-6, and in the second, she allowed Safarova to hold a match point against her. But luckily, Li Na could stave off the challenge at the crucial juncture. Li Na then took the second set to the tie-break, played well, squared the match-score to 1-1 and then dominated in the decider to wrap up the match. In all other matches, she beat her opponents comprehensively.
Dominika Cibulkova, on the other hand, had to go through tough games on the road to reaching the final. In the second round she had to contend a challenge from the no. 16 seed Spaniard Carla Suarez Navarro but beat her easily 6-1, 6-0. But Cibulkova’s most famous upset victory came in her third-round encounter with No. 3 seed and the celebrated Maria Sharapova. After Sharapova took the first set, Cibulkova made a strong comeback and dictated the match in the second and third sets before finally winning 3-6, 6-4, 6-1. In the quarterfinal, Cibulkova continued her great tournament form and beat the no. 11 seed Simona Halep of Romania 6-3, 6-0. Her semifinal opponent was the no. 5 seed Agnieszka Radwanska of Poland. Despite expectations to the contrary, Cibulkova surprised everyone, including Radawanska, to take the match with utmost ease 6-1, 6-2.
Thus the two finalists knew about each other’s strengths, before they took the court in the Rod Laver Arena on Saturday. Li Na didn’t have any grand illusions, after her unsuccessful bids for the title in 2011 and 2013. On both occasions, she had begun the match by winning the first sets. She also knew about the proverbial difference between the cup and the lip. Someone probably also told her about the legendary Ivan Lendl, who, despite reaching finals of Wimbledon in 1986 and 1987, could never win the coveted trophy. Lendl also reached Wimbledon semifinals in 1983, 1984, 1988, 1989 and 1990. For a long period, Lendl maintained a winning percentage of more 90 but Wimbledon eluded him. Li Na, therefore, was always on guard, even in the second set, which she won 6-0. Her immediate reaction to winning was one of great relief rather than the usual celebratory excitement. She raised both hands and stood for some time to ensure that she had really won. Earlier, Cibulkova played a great first set, which lasted for 70 minutes. Li Na had to struggle with her first serve, which was not dropping in the box on most occasions. Then she committed some weird forehand errors, which resulted in a 3-1 lead getting converted to a 4-3 deficit. But she fought back and broke Cibulkova in the eleventh game to lead 6-5, with just her serve to follow. But the brave Cibulkova broke back to take the set to the tie-break. Li Na had an upper hand in the tie break and after a grueling duel won the first set. The events of the first set raised hope of a big battle ahead but Cibulkova’s game crumbled in the second set completely. For Li Na, therefore, the victory in the second set was like a literal walk in the Melbourne Park. A roaring wave of excited ovation rose in unison, from the part of the stands, where Li Na’s band of faithful supporters has been cheering her all through the tournament.
With just one day remaining in the year’s first Grand Slam, the world awaits for the men’s single final between Rafael Nadal and Stanislas Wawrinka on Sunday evening.
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