Li Na is a player who knows how to make life difficult for her opponents, and often for herself as well. But today in the Australian Open final she navigated the shoals of anxiety expertly to win the title going away in two sets and an hour and 37 minutes, 7-6 (3), 6-0.
After all, Li has had a lot of practice when it comes to having her emotions tested. Twice before, she won the first set in an Australian Open final, and in both instances her game sputtered and failed. In one, she was up a set and a break; in the other she was at a set and 4-all. This time, she wasn’t going to allow anything like that to happen again.
Or was she? Nobody knew.
In all honesty, Li was fortunate this time around to be facing a player not quite in the same class as the other two women who roared back to frustrate her Down Under, Kim Clijsters and Victoria Azarenka. But the “Little Onion” (the literal translation of Cibulkova’s name) had demonstrated at this tournament that she’s capable of anything, having eliminated four of the WTA Top 20 on her way to the final.
Arriving at the terminal destination was certainly a new experience for the first-time Grand Slam finalist, and through the first few games her nerves got the best of her. Broken in the first game, Cibulkova allowed Li an easy hold for 2-0 and then got herself right back into trouble in the next game, offering two break points. Both of them presented Li with good chances to break, but she doesn’t always like to do things the easy way. A forehand pass by the underdog and a forehand error by Li allowed Cibulkova to avoid the double-break deficit.
Li held the next game for 3-1, but her error count was rising like a fever in a flu victim, and her ability to avoid the service box with her first serve bordered on genius. Serving to build on her lead of 3-2, Li hit back-to-back double faults to allow a break that leveled the score at 3-all.
That was discouraging, but mitigated by the fact that when Li managed to retain her emotional equilibrium, her wicked cross-court backhand and stellar ability to open up the court were both available to her. As quick and nimble as the 5’2” Cibulkova is, she can only cover so much territory with her short stride. It seemed just a matter of whether or not Li would overcome the heebee jeebees.
But from 3-all right up to the tiebreaker, we had no satisfactory answer. By 4-all, Li’s success rate on first serves had plunged to 28 percent, and it seemed that she’d made enough unforced errors to present each of her fellow Chinese countrymen with one as a special souvenir.
Li’s forehand was especially shaky. Serving at 4-5, she threw in her 15th forehand error of the match—then secured the hold with an ace. She then broke Cibulkova for a 6-5 lead, but the game Slovak brushed aside a set point in the next game and broke right back to send the set to a tiebreaker.
This may have been the point where the good work done over the last year by Li’s ultra-supportive coach Carlos Rodriguez paid the greatest dividends. Instead of continuing in a death spiral, Li pulled it together and played a terrific tiebreaker.
Li scored a mini-break on the very first point, smacking a forehand service winner off a Cibulkova first serve. Although Li was obliged to hand back that advantage when Cibulkova hit a forehand winner two points later, she charged hard against the two ensuing points served by Cibulkova, winning both—the first with a prodigious drive volley winner, and the second after an aggressive second-serve return. That drove Li’s advantage to 4-1.
Li then delivered a service winner for 5-1, and it provided her with a nice cushion against any further blows to her confidence. Cibulkova re-gained one mini-break with a sweet inside-out winner and held a service point to creep to 3-5, but Li hit a terrific return that jammed her opponent to force a backhand error. That brought up a set point for Li at 6-3, and she won it on a backhand error by Cibulkova.
The effect of winning the tiebreaker was comparable to the sun breaking through the clouds following a rainstorm. Cibulkova wouldn’t win another game, and Li ensured that nobody would ever describe her again as a “One-Slam Wonder.” With two major titles and a pile of finals and semis to her credit, Li has proven herself one of the great champions of the Open era.
Stat of the Match: Despite hitting 30 unforced errors, Li blasted 34 winners—23 more than Cibulkova.