Fitness, quickness, and the timing to generate punishing power from flat strikes are shared strengths. Both the fourth-seeded Li and 20th-seeded Cibulkova have commanded rallies at crunch time; both have lost just one set; both are strong-willed, fiercely-independent players: Li successfully gained control of her career from the Chinese Federation, while Cibulkova silenced skeptics who predicted that her size limited her career to a low ceiling. Li has won all four of their prior meetings, including a 7-6 (1), 6-2 triumph in their lone hard-court clash in the Toronto quarterfinals last summer.
Their Grand Slam experience is as disparate as their backgrounds. Li—from Wuhan, China, a city of about 10 million—swept 30th-seeded Eugenie Bouchard, 6-2, 6-4, to advance to her fourth Grand Slam final, including her second straight Melbourne title match. The Bratislava-born Cibulkova, representing a nation of about 5.5 million, thrashed former junior nemesis Agnieszka Radwanska, 6-1, 6-2, to become the first Slovak to reach a Grand Slam final (Martina Hingis was born in Slovakia, but moved to Switzerland at the age 8 and played her entire career for Switzerland).
Standing 5’3”, the diminutive Dominika has been a colossal competitor in Oz, defeating four seeds—No. 16 Carla Suarez Navarro, No. 3 Sharapova, No. 11 Simona Halep, and No. 5 Radwanska—in succession. The shortest woman in the Top 50 is not lacking self-belief and has cause for confidence: Cibulkova has dropped just 26 games in six tournament victories.
“You need to be 100 percent sure you can do it. Yes, I [believe],” Cibulkova said about the upcoming final. “Even if it turns out different way, now I know I can do it. If I think of it like that, it’s finals, it’s a big pressure. Still, I want to enjoy it on the court. I don’t want to suffer on the court.”
Staring down elimination at the hands of Lucie Safarova in the third round, Li survived a match point to spark a revival: She has dropped just 12 games in her last three matches.
“I [was] really feeling after the match I was getting second life in this tournament,” said Li, who is bidding to join Serena Williams, Jennifer Capriati, and Monica Seles as the fourth woman in the Open era to win the Aussie Open after saving a match point. “In China, we say if you have a tough time, you pass that, it means you be so lucky.”
Look for Li to use her best weapon, the two-handed backhand, to open angles and stretch Cibulkova, who compensates for a diminished reach by straddling the baseline to take the ball on the rise. The 31-year-old has been playing suffocating tennis, driving the ball deep in the court to back up opponents, taking the first strike down the line, and occasionally closing net behind her sweeping swing volleys. Those forays left Bouchard sometimes lunging in vain—when she wasn’t scrambling behind the baseline fending off Li’s drives.
“All of her groundstrokes were like a foot from the baseline and she was very consistent,” said Bouchard. “Even her serves were really solid. I felt like she didn't give me much breathing space, much room to do what I want to do on the court.”
Li has worked with coach Carlos Rodriguez to add more spin and depth to her forehand and second serve, but if she's tight, her flatter forehand can sometimes stray. Cibulkova, who struck stinging forehands fearlessly in standing toe-to-toe with Sharapova, will want to challenge that wing, take the first strike when she can, and get an early lead (as she did against Radwanska) to apply some scoreboard pressure.
Margins are magnified in Grand Slam finals, which makes executing the essentials—holding serve, earning the first break, building the early lead, controlling the center of the court, and coping with constricting tension—even more important. Cibulkova has shrugged off pressure so far, but how will she perform in her first major final? Li may feel even more tension carrying a country’s hopes on her shoulders. Her historic victory over defending champion Francesca Schiavone in the 2011 French Open final commanded a larger TV audience in China than the Super Bowl drew that year.
You may view Li’s two runner-up results in Oz as a sign of vulnerability in a player who can struggles to find the finish line. But I believe those finals setbacks—particularly last year’s, when she scraped herself off the court after suffering a pair of left ankle injuries and banging the back of her head after a nasty fall—have strengthened her resolve. I don’t doubt Cibulkova will hurl herself into every shot and exhaust every opportunity, but Li is the bigger server, and her persistence, experience and explosiveness give her the edge. I see the woman with the rose tattoo coming into full bloom and winning her first Australian Open title.
The Pick: Li Na in two sets