Li, Yes

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To wind up 2014, I’m reposting 14 articles I liked from this past season. I’ll put up one each day until January 5, when the new season begins. This review of Li Na’s Australian Open win can now do double duty as a tribute to the retired pioneer.

MELBOURNE—Li Na knew exactly what to do when she walked into Rod Laver Arena tonight. She came out of the tunnel fast, marched straight to the young girl who was there to hand her flowers, and after picking them up made a beeline to her sideline chair. Having been to the Australian Open final twice before, Li was familiar with the pomp and circumstance surrounding this evening, as well as the vocal support that she would receive from her many fellow Chinese in the audience. But Li didn’t have any time for it; she had work to do. All week her Aussie friends had assured her that “the third time’s a charm," yet she wasn’t so sure. 

“In China,” Li joked, “six or eight is lucky, not three.” She didn't want to have to lose five finals here before luck came her way.

But for all of her focus, when her match with Dominika Cibulkova got underway, Li didn’t start quickly at all. Fortunately for her, the Slovak, a Slam-final neophyte who happily soaked up the applause when she was introduced, was just as tight. The spark that drove Domi through her semifinal against Agnieszka Radwanska was missing, dimmed by nerves. Through the early stages of the first set, the two women traded shanks, wild ground strokes, and double faults. Li went up 2-0, but Cibulkova saved two break points to hold for 1-2, and let out her first “Pome!” of the night. When she held again for 2-3, Li shot her husband, Dennis, and her coach, Carlos Rodriguez, a side-eyed glance of irritation. Two games later, Dennis, target of so many of his wife's on-courts rants in the past, must have felt another one coming, because he got up and left.

“I was feeling I didn’t show up,” Li said of her play in the first set. “I was nervous.”

Was this going to be another night of anxious frustration for Li? It was the first time that she had come into a major final as the heavy favorite. It was also the same Li Na who had twice lost the Aussie Open final after winning the first set. 

Or was it the same Li Na? She said she had worked on her self-belief with Rodriguez, former coach of Justine Henin, over the last half-year. She was so vexed with her game after the French Open in May that, as she told USA Today this week, she contemplated retirement. Since then, since re-committing to the tour at age 31, she has had the most consistent six months of her career.

“He tell me, ‘Always believe in yourself.’” Li said of Rodriguez today. “I didn’t always believe in myself. Tonight I trust myself. In the first set, I thought, ‘You have more experience than her.’ I had to just hang in there.”

Serving at 3-4, Li trusted herself enough to come up with four screaming winners. The fog of nerves had cleared. Even Dennis’ return to his seat at 4-4 couldn’t deter Li, though she did throw another side-eye his way after she missed a drop shot, as if the whole thing had been his dumb idea.

It took nearly an hour, but Li found her range just in time. After getting broken while serving for the first set 6-5, she elevated herself about Cibulkova in the tiebreaker, and never came back to earth. A forehand return winner was followed by a backhand winner, which was followed by a swing volley winner, which was followed by another big backhand return. Li was on her way. By the second set, she was practically giving a clinic in how to hit backhand lasers, even as she was winning the Australian Open, 7-6 (3), 6-0. The first set took 70 minutes, the second 27. She finished with 34 winners to Cibulkova’s 11.

The undersized Cibulkova, who is now 0-5 against Li, did what she could and acquitted herself well. Even as she was being bageled, she could smile across the net as she apologized to Li for a net-cord winner. And Domi kept smiling through her tears afterward.

Asked if she was proud of her performance at this event, Cibulkova said, “You know, I just lost the final, so I need some time. Maybe tomorrow morning I will be 100 percent proud of myself. But now it’s just maybe 50 percent.”

As for the match, Domi said, “She was the one who was dictating the game. Today I can only regret that my serve was not really there.”

Cibulkova says that now she knows that a Grand Slam final is, “Just another match in your life; that’s how you have to take it.”

Domi’s run was exciting. She upset Maria Sharapova, ran Radwanska off the court, and lost just one set on her way to the final. We can only hope to see more of her infectious game, and smile, at major moments in the future.

But this major moment belonged to Li. Like Marion Bartoli at Wimbledon, she benefited from an extremely good draw—with Serena Williams, Victoria Azarenka, and Sharapova taken care of by others, she didn’t face a player in the Top 20. But unlike Bartoli’s win at Wimbledon, Li’s isn’t a shock. 

In fact, she’s already a folk hero in Australia—“Aussie Li Na,” might be a stretch, but it wouldn’t be far from the truth in Melbourne. While a win was expected from her tonight, a killer victory speech was pretty much guaranteed, and she was ready with some of her best material.

Li began by talking about the trophy, which is called the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup: “I finally got him—I mean, her,” she said.

Then she thanked her money man, IMG’s Max Eisenbud: “Max, agent, makes me rich, thanks a lot.”

And then she came to Dennis: “You’re a nice guy,” she said in tribute to her husband, hitting partner, and all-around personal assistant. “You’re lucky you found me.”

Li’s speech was an instant classic, a fact that surprised and pleased her. 

“I was thinking maybe I speak too much,” she said with a smile afterward. “No? That’s good. Maybe next time I should speak even longer.”

Li is funny, of course, but what I think people like about her is that she’s a real person out there, a full person, one who talks about a daily existence that involves more than just bashing tennis balls. Through the filter of her comic routines, you get a sense, not only of the sitcom that seems to be her married life, but of her anxieties and uncertainties about tennis. You also get a sense of the will that she has developed over the years to overcome those uncertainties. We can relate to all of it, even her rants, which any tennis player will recognize from their own matches. Li isn’t a champion who is made of steel, but her sense of humor conveys a more human strength.

One subject the 31-year-old has always been concisely eloquent on is age. Three years ago at the French Open, she listened to a question about it, narrowed her eyes at the reporter and said, slowly, “Age just paper.”

Tonight she listened to a similar question, narrowed her eyes, and said, “I would like to say, age is nothing. Still can win the Grand Slam. So pretty happy about my age.”

She’s rich, she’s a Grand Slam champion, her husband’s a lucky man to have her, and she scoffs at father time. Maybe Li Na can make three a lucky number in China, too.

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