Third time was the charm for Li Na. After falling to Kim Clijsters and Victoria Azarenka in the 2011 and 2013 Australian Opens respectively, the Chinese superstar was finally able to hold the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup as the 2014 Australian Open women’s singles champion by besting surprise finalist Dominika Cibulkova, 7-6 (3) 6-0. Already the only player from Asia with a Major singles title following her triumph at Roland Garros 2011, Li Na now becomes a multiple Major winner. Despite winning earlier this year in Shenzhen while Maria Sharapova lost in the semis at Brisbane, Li had slipped from #3 in the world to #4 going into the Australian Open. She will now return to world #3 when the rankings come out Monday. That is the highest ranking in singles ever for a a player representing an Asian country, male or female. She will also be a mere 11 points shy of Vika for world #2. With a second straight title in January, Li Na runs her 2014 match record to a perfect 12-0.
Early on it looked like the moment might be too much for Cibulkova as Li Na broke her in the first game, held serve and then had another break point chance. But then the nerves swung back to Li as Domi fought off the break point to hold and then broke back in the sixth game for 3-all courtesy of two double faults by Li Na. Anybody who has followed Li Na knows she can sometimes lose focus, but she pulled things together enough to break Cibulkova again for a 6-5 lead. Li Na proceeded to go up a set point, but Domi won three consecutive points to force a tiebreak. This is when Li Na finally raised her level of play and seized the match. The 2-time Major champion won the tiebreak 7-3 and then put her foot on the gas, blitzing Cibulkova in the second set to tune of a 6-0 bagel. A fan favorite who often had the crowd in the palm of her hands with her engaging post match interviews could now speak to them as their champion.
It amazing how fate can turn in a moment. In the third round Lucie Safarova held a match point against Li Na. A Safarova forehand sailed inches past the baseline or Li Na would have had an extremely disappointing early exit from Melbourne. More than that, there was a chance last year that Li Na wouldn’t even be at the 2014 Australian Open. After some shaky play at Eastbourne 2013, Li Na was so despondent about the state of her game that she seriously told her coach Carlos Rodriguez that she wanted to retire. Instead of trying to talk her out of it, as she expected, Carlos said if Li wanted to retire, then she should. He felt that if she didn’t love playing the game anymore, it was time to walk away. Li Na would pull it together to reach the quarterfinals at Wimbledon before recapturing her form to finish 2013 strongly and quash any ideas of retiring. I am so happy it worked out that way.
Li Na now goes forward as the first singles Major champion of 2014. When she won Roland Garros in 2011, she struggled the rest of the year. I don’t think that will happen this time. The spotlight won’t be as bright this time compared to when she became the first Chinese player and first player representing Asia to win a Major in singles. Even if it were, the experience of what she went through last time will help her deal with the off the court demands this time. Also, she didn’t immediately go home last time, instead embarking on a whirlwind media tour. This time, she’s going home for Chinese New Year (Year of the Horse). I think being home with family will help normalize the atmosphere around her. I look for a much different year in 2014 following this Major championship than 2011 following that one. Can she overtake Vika for world #2? Maybe. I never want to count Vika out or underestimate her, though. It will be fun watching Li Na to see if she will.
|WOMEN’S SINGLES – FINALS – COMPLETED|
|L. Na #4 «||7(7)||6|
|D. Cibulkova #20||6(3)||0|
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