Australian Open 2014: Experience counts as Li Na has last laugh

Chinese proves too strong for debutant finalist in winning Australian Open at the third attempt

Melbourne

Li Na’s post-match humour has become as big a part of the Australian Open as 40C heatwaves and Lleyton Hewitt five-set marathons and in her finest moment here the 31-year-old Chinese did not disappoint. After beating Dominika Cibulkova 7-6 6-0 to claim her second Grand Slam title, Li took the microphone and thanked, among others, her agent, Max Eisenbud, and her husband, Jiang Shan.

“Max, my agent,” Li said. “He made me rich. Thanks a lot.” Turning to Jiang, who in the past has been the butt of her jokes about his snoring and their credit card, Li said: “Thanks to my husband, now so famous in China. He’s my hitting partner, fixes the drinks, fixes the rackets. You do a lot of jobs. Thanks a lot. You are a nice guy. You were lucky to find me.”

The Australian Open markets  itself as the “Grand Slam of Asia-Pacific” and could hardly have had a more popular champion, barring a home player. Li’s warm smile and engaging sense of humour have  endeared her to the public here. After her defeats in the finals of 2011 and 2013, the world No 4 had  the overwhelming support of the crowd as she took on a 24-year-old opponent playing in her first Grand Slam final.

Cibulkova, the first player representing Slovakia to play in a Grand Slam singles final, had a much more difficult route to the final. The world No 24 knocked out four higher-ranked opponents, including Maria Sharapova and Agnieszka Radwanska, while Li, who will climb to No 3 in the world rankings tomorrow, had not faced any top-20 players.

The early exchanges were littered with mistakes. Cibulkova double-faulted on break point in the opening game and Li followed suit five games later. In her first three service games Li put just two of her 16 first serves in court. After two more breaks of serve the first set went to a tie-break, at which stage Li took command. Having won the first two points with a forehand return and a thumping backhand, Li won the tie-break 7-3, Cibulkova mis-hitting a backhand on the second set point.

The first set had taken 70 minutes, but the second lasted less than half an hour as Li settled into the consistent hitting that has become her hallmark. Although she has developed more of an all-court game since Carlos Rodriguez became her coach, her greatest strengths remain her athleticism, strength and ball striking.

 

After becoming the first Asian player of either sex to win a Grand Slam singles title when she triumphed at the French Open in 2011, it seemed that Li’s career had stalled. However, Rodriguez has returned Li to the very top group of players who can be expected to contest the major prizes. Tomorrow’s rankings list will put Li just 11 points behind world No 2 Victoria Azarenka.

Li, wearing a tee-shirt with Chinese script that read “my heart has no limits”, admitted in her post-match press conference that she had felt nervous in the first set of the final. “I was feeling that I didn’t show up,” she said. “I tried to hang in there till the end of the first set or the end of the match because I really didn’t want to show her or show myself [how she was feeling]. If you show something to your opponent maybe she will get the chance, so I really tried to stay calm.”

When it was pointed out that she was the oldest female champion at the Australian Open, Li smiled: “I’m not old. At the start of the tournament everybody was talking about age. I would like to say age is nothing. I’m pretty happy about my age. I can still win a Grand Slam. I have more experience on the court.”

Was she proud to have won the title after saving a match point against Lucie Safarova in the third round? “I think I should send an email to Safarova – and send her a smile as well.”

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