Third time lucky for Li Na
Chinese star finally gets her hands on Australian Open trophy after blowing away Dominika Cibulkova, then delights Melbourne crowd with her sense of humour
Seven months after giving retirement serious thought, Li Na made it third time lucky in an Australian Open final with a 7-6 (7-3), 6-0 win over Dominika Cibulkova to become the oldest women's champion there in the Open era.
Li, who turns 32 next month, lost finals to Kim Clijsters in 2011 and to Victoria Azarenka last year. In between, she won the 2011 French Open in one of the many firsts she's established for Chinese tennis. Widely popular at Melbourne Park for her funny post-match interviews and wisecracks about her husband and his snoring, Li didn't disappoint the crowd in her first victory speech at Rod Laver Arena.
She first thanked her agent, Max Eisenbud, "for making me rich", her coach Carlos Rodriguez and then her husband, former coach and constant travelling companion, Shan Jiang. She told him he was "even famous in China".
"So thanks for him giving up everything, just travelling with me to be my hitting partner, fix the drinks, fix the racket. So thanks a lot, you are a nice guy," she said, pausing for the laughter. "Also you are so lucky to find me."
In both her previous finals at Melbourne Park, Li won the first set, but went down in three. Against Azarenka last year, she stumbled and twisted her ankle, and needed a medical timeout in the third set. She had no such trouble against 20th seed Cibulkova, racing through the second set in 27 minutes after taking the first in a tiebreaker.
Li's supporters were everywhere in the crowd, some with Chinese flags painted on their faces, others holding Chinese flags or giant signs painted with Chinese characters. Her fans got her through the nervous first set, chanting, "Li Na, Let's Go", in Putonghua during every changeover. As Li began her roll in the second set, someone yelled, "C'mon Li Na, bagel her!" She did.
A half hour later she was holding up both thumbs to the crowd, and holding back tears as she hugged her Slovakian rival at the net. She went immediately to the side of the court to shake hands with her coach Rodriguez. The diminutive Cibulkova, one of the shortest players yet to reach a grand slam final at 1.61 metres, had four wins over top 20 players on her way to the final, including a fourth-round upset of third-seeded Maria Sharapova and a straight-sets semi-final trouncing of No 5 Agnieszka Radwanska.
She had to pull the microphone down closer to her before her post-match speech. "These were just a fantastic two weeks of my life," she said, pausing to laugh, then cry.
No 4-ranked Li, who has four times more followers on Weibo than there are people in Slovakia, had a good run through the tournament, as other star players like Serena Williams, Sharapova and Azarenka tumbled out by the quarter-finals. Li said it did not matter how she got there, only that she had finally broken through to win the title at her favourite major.
Rodriguez had to talk Li into playing Wimbledon after she told him she wanted to retire in the wake of the criticism that followed her early exit at the last French Open. He encouraged her to just play and see how she went at the All England Club before making such a big career decision. She responded by reaching the quarter-finals at Wimbledon, the semi-finals at the US Open and now breaking her drought in Australia.
She paid tribute to his calm, composed approach and support. "Before the match he was telling me to relax, just think it's a match, don't think it's a final," she recounted, admitting that she'd even taken time out for a short afternoon sleep to help with nerves. "When he is coaching me, he always says, 'Believe in yourself'. He always believed in me, I never believed in myself. That was my problem."
Now she's already promising to come back and defend her Australian title. "Finally I got her," Li said as she put a hand on the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup for the first time. "The last two times was very close."