Tennis: Third time is lucky for Li

Li Na won her second grand slam in straight sets last night. Photo / Getty
Li Na won her second grand slam in straight sets last night. Photo / Getty

Li Na had a date with the Australian Open title.

She had let it slip in heartbreaking fashion in 2011, 2012 and 2013 but 2014 was her year, winning 7-6, 6-0 against Dominika Cibulkova last night.

In last year's final, Li came crashing down. Literally. The crowd had been on her side after final opponent - and eventual champion - Victoria Azarenka had got up a lot of noses. In the semifinal, she had pulled what seemed to many to be a tactical medical time-out against giant-killing Sloan Stephens; the crowd's favour was with the Chinese underdog.

Li was ahead when she famously twisted her ankle and then twisted it again, this time hitting her head on the court in the fall, causing a temporary blackout.

She lost 6-4, 4-6, 3-6 but endeared herself to many fans when she took the defeat gracefully and self-deprecatingly.

Li - the 2011 French Open champion - had also appeared in the Australian Open final in 2011, losing to Belgium's Kim Clijsters.

She made it through to the fourth round in 2012, when a twisted ankle again made an appearance.

That time, it was her opponent Clijsters (who had beaten her in the 2011 final) who rolled her ankle - surrendering the first set before mounting a comeback that left a shattered Li in tears at the press conference afterwards.

So you might say there was some history there. Before the final, world No4 Li was asked if she thought it would be third time lucky. She replied in typical Chinese fashion that six and eight were lucky numbers but she wasn't sure about three.

Actually, seven was her lucky number - she took the tie-breaker in the first set 7-6 and that broke Cibulkova's resistance.

Now closing on 32, Li Na probably faced never winning the Australian Open if she hadn't taken it last night. She would probably never have got a better chance than against Cibulkova, the little Slovakian who had only ever taken one set from Li in the four times they had met previous to last night's final and who had never before been in the pressure-filled reaches of a grand slam final.

Sure enough, Cibulkova dropped her opening serve and Li instantly began to find her range from the baseline and with her trademark shots down the lines. It looked bleak for Cibulkova but she has built her presence in this tournament around feistiness and determination born of a new coach, a new racquet and a new confidence.

She broke back and it was a titanic struggle in the ninth game, on Cibulkova's serve, which saw the Slovakian go ahead 5-4, with Li's forehand deserting her as she made errors on important points.

When Li was on song, her power and placement troubled Cibulkova but she mixed up power and placement with misdirection and faulty length. Meanwhile Cibulkova's first serve was troubling her - missing too many and allowing Li to attack the second serve, usually successfully. At 5-5, Cibulkova faltered with her sixth double fault and Li broke her for the second time in the set before facing two break points herself as she tried to serve out for the set.

The little Slovakian bulldog refused to let go, scampering and fetching and causing mistakes to be made at the other end of the court - taking the set into a tie-break.

Their relative experience in such a pressure-cooker showed, Li playing some telling drive volleys and Cibulkova sprinting to and fro to stay in it. But she fell behind to a hopeless 5-1, losing the tie-breaker 7-3.

Li had hit three times as many winners as Cibulkova but had also made 25 forced errors to her opponent's 20 in the first set. When her percentages began to re-assert themselves Li, not always the most convincing closer, looked clearly superior.

She raced out to 5-0 in the second set. Cibulkova's service problems persisted and, although Cibulkova produced some defiant returns of serve, Li's game began to assert itself.

In the sixth game, she found her muse, hitting left and right to the corners and on the lines - running Cibulkova ragged and gaining herself two match points.

This time, there was no blackout, just a whitewash. The tournament and the trophy and her second grand slam title came to her as if it was destined. And it probably was.

- Herald on Sunday

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