There is something inexplicable about Li Na’s performance at the Australian Open. She has reached the finals here in 2011, 2013 and now in 2014. Unfortunately, she couldn’t convert any one of these opportunities in a victory. In 15 years as professional women’s tennis player, she has won many singles tournaments on the ITF Circuit. Her success in the major tennis events, however, has not been as remarkable. Her victory at the 2011 French Open is the only Grand Slam title against her name, though she has reached the Quarterfinals at Wimbledon in 2006, 2010 and 2013 and also the semifinal of the US open in 2013. Li Na achieved her career best singles ranking of world No. 3 in October 2013, the year, which saw her perform brilliantly in all the Grand Slam events except at the Roland Garros.
Li Na is joined in the final by 20th seed Slovakian Dominika Cibulkova, who also steamrolled at the top by shocking the Polish 5th seed Agnieszka Radwanska in the other semifinal. Cibulkova’s performance in this year’s Australian Open is like a leaf from story books. In six matches that she played beginning with the first round, Cibulkova has dropped just one set in her fourth round match against Maria Sharapova. And after beating Maria, she has played inspired tennis in the run up to the final.
In the year’s first Grand Slam, the Chinese fourth seed Li Na now remains the only player within the top 5, who is still in the tournament. Cibulkova accounted for the fifth seed Radawanska in a masterful performance today. In her semifinal encounter this morning, Li Na easily defeated the Canadian 30th seed Eugenie Bouchard 6-2, 6-4 to move to the final for the third time in her career. On Thursday, Bouchard was not able to repeat the same performance, which she did against Ana Ivanovic. Against Li Na, she lost the first set 2-6 in just 29 minutes. Bouchard held her serve just once and broke Li Na in the sixth game after conceding a 0-5 lead. But Li Na made lesser number of errors in the first set. The second set began with Bouchard holding her serve and breaking Li Na to lead 2-0. In the next game Li Na broke back and held her only serve in the entire second set to make it 2-2. The next six games, until the last, were a tale of trading breaks. Li Na broke Bouchard in the tenth game to win the set and the match.
But Li Na will have tough time against the consistency of short-statured Slovakian Cibulkova, who completely demolished the fifth seed Agnieszka Radwanska, losing just three games to leave the tearful Pole woefully stranded. The Slovak played amazing tennis to become the first player from her country, men or women, to enter a Grand Slam final with an authoritative 6-1, 6-2 win. In Stanford last year, she had beaten the same Radawanska in the final to win one of her three career titles. The punch-packed power play from the diminutive Slovakian was evident from the start of the match, as she began with a break of serve and holding hers. Cibulkova displayed a range of forceful volleys, which landed on all corners of the court, as Radawanska watched in flustered dismay. When the Pole got an opportunity to break Cibulkova’s serve in the first set, the Slovak power-house saved five break points and finally held her serve. Radawanska began making too many unforced errors, which allowed Cibulkova to wrap up the first set 6-1 in 37 minutes. In the second set too, Cibulkova broke early and raced to a 4-0 lead. Radawanska made semblance of amends to break back and after holding her serve reduced the lead to 4-2. But this was only as far as the Pole could go, as Cibulkova not only held her serve but broke right back in the eighth game to clinch the match.
This Australian Open has proved to be a graveyard of many seeded players but the stage is now set for the women’s singles final between a three-time finalist and an underdog. The way women’s matches go, the advantage will rest with someone, who makes the least unforced errors. On paper, Cibulkova holds the advantage, unless her game deteriorates markedly.