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Steve Flink: Li Na succeeds at last in Melbourne

1/25/2014 12:00:00 PM

Three years ago, the highly appealing Li Na made it to her first Australian Open final, taking the first set from the tenacious Kim Clijsters before losing in three sets. Last year, she was back in the title round match, securing the opening set from Victoria Azarenka, hoping good fortune would come her way. But Azarenka rallied gamely after Li suffered an ankle sprain and took a hard fall on the court, banging her head in the process. Azarenka recorded a three set win for her second title run in a row, but Li endeared herself to the game’s closest followers and the fans in Melbourne with her innate charm, grace under duress, and lack of self-pity. Those were arduous setbacks, tough verdicts to accept, moments that must have lingered too long for a player of considerable pride.

But now Li has moved beyond those disappointments, and her Australian Open victory this time around must have been more rewarding and gratifying in many ways than her first major title run at Roland Garros in 2011. In a third round clash at the first major of 2014, Li was perilously close to bowing out of the tournament against Lucie Safarova, a gifted left-hander. Safarova had a match point, and drove a two-hander cleanly down the line. Her shot looked like a winner when it left her racket. Safarova challenged the call, but the ball was out, and Li was still alive. She fought back ferociously to win that contest 1-6, 7-6 (2), 6-3 and then cast aside Ekaterina Makarova, Flavia Pennetta and Eugenie Bouchard comfortably in straight sets.

Those successes put Li in the final against Dominika Cibulkova, the first Slovakian woman ever to reach the title round. Cibulkova had never beaten Li in four previous meetings, but she was celebrating the fortnight of her career. The No. 20 seed ousted four other seeded players including No. 3 Maria Sharapova and No. 5 Agnieszka Radwanska. She was not intimidated by the prospect of confronting Li. Cibulkova is a formidable competitor, a 5’3” dynamo, an emotional player who has the propensity to strike down players with wider ranges of power. The 24-year-old absorbs pace well, knows how to seize the initiative and move swiftly from defense to offense, understands how to get the most out of her game. Her best showing at a Grand Slam tournament had been a semifinal appearance at the 2009 French Open, but she had not done herself justice in the years since. She is a smart, energetic, resourceful match player.

And yet, understandably, Cibulkova was a bit apprehensive at the outset of her duel with Li. No one can ever be quite prepared for their first final at a Grand Slam event; it is a seminal moment for anyone who arrives in that territory. Li, meanwhile, seemed composed in the early stages. Cibulkova built a 40-30 lead in the opening game of the match, but Li made it back to deuce with a typically scorching return that she struck with good depth and pace. That return forced an error from Cibulkova, who double faulted to fall behind break point. Li pulled a backhand crosscourt wide to bring the score back to deuce and then released a trademark backhand down the line winner to garner another break point. Cibulkova was shaken. She double faulted that game away.

Li held at 30 for 2-0, making another excellent backhand down the line winner for 30-30 before collecting the next two points. Now Li had an opportunity to perhaps break the first set wide open. With Cibulkova serving in the third game, Li went forcefully after another service break. The Chinese competitor reached 30-40, and her forehand return could have been no better. She sent it deep into Cibulkova’s forehand corner, and Cibulkova’s response was a short forehand down the line. Her shot landed inside the service line. Li moved forward for the backhand approach. She could have gone for an outright winner crosscourt, but elected instead to come in down the middle. Cibulkova made a low backhand pass crosscourt, forcing Li to play the volley without aggression. Cibulkova then produced a sparkling forehand passing shot down the line.

Cibulkova was back to deuce and then had a game point. But Li reached break point for the second time in that third game, only to miss-hit a forehand wide. The enterprising Cibulkova held on for 1-2 but Li held at 15 for 3-1. Cibulkova knew she had escaped from a dark corner. She held at 30 for 2-3, and soon reached 15-30 in the sixth game. From that juncture, Li served consecutive double faults to lose her serve, finding the net on the first one, going way long on the second. Briefly looking frantic and in disarray, she arranged through her coach Carlos Rodriguez to get some rackets restrung at a different tension. Li was looking to recover her confidence and regain her ball control off the forehand side. Her tendency to spray balls off that forehand can be costly, although she has clearly added topspin to that stroke and it is generally a more stable shot than it once was.

Be that as it may, Cibulkova was on a roll. She held at 15 for 4-3. She was now taking control of points while Li wavered. Cibulkova closed that seventh game with an unstoppable wide slice serve in the deuce court. Li recognized her plight. She had lost three straight games, dropping 12 of 16 points in that span. But Li found her range just in time. She commenced the eighth game with a backhand winner down the line, moved to 30-0 after a barrage of backhands left Cibulkova compromised, and held on at 15 by moving Cibulkova persistently from side to side before concluding the point with a winning crosscourt backhand. It was 4-4.

Cibulkova advanced to 40-30 in the ninth game, and released a drop shot crosscourt off the backhand. Li scampered forward swiftly, and rolled a two-hander up the line for a winner. Yet Cibulkova stood her ground. She earned a second game point, but double faulted long. Li made it to break point, produced a solid return to the backhand of Cibulkova, but then drove a forehand wildly over the baseline. Cibulkova held on for 5-4. Li was serving to stay in a set that had seemed destined to go her way, but she handled that assignment remarkably well. She opened that critical tenth game with an inside-out forehand winner, lost the next point, but moved to 30-15 with a good second serve that Cibulkova could not return. After splitting the next two points, Li aced her adversary down the T at 40-30 to bring about a 5-5 deadlock.

The tension at this stage was almost palpable. Cibulkova double faulted to trail 15-30 in the eleventh game. On the next point, Li exploited one of her favorite and most effective patterns, drilling a forehand crosscourt to open up an avenue for a backhand crosscourt winner. At 15-40, the depth of Li’s return coaxed Cibulkova into an error. Li had the break for 6-5, and was serving for the set. At 30-30 in the twelfth game, Li ran down a drop shot from Cibulkova, steering her forehand deep down the line. Li was poised to deposit a forehand drop volley into a wide open court, but she did not open up the racket face sufficiently, missing into the net. And yet, from 30-40 she reached set point. Trying for another of her almost automatic backhands down the line, Li was off the mark, sending it wide. A determined Cibulkova drove a deep inside out backhand to set up a forehand winner, and then she forced another error from a disconcerted Li. It was 6-6.

Li began the tie-break with panache, lacing a forehand return winner down the line before making a backhand down the line placement. She was up a mini-break at 2-0, but Cibulkova responded in kind, angling her return of serve to create the opening for a down the line winner off the forehand. Yet Li was not dismayed. She took utter control of the next point, and advanced to 3-1 with a forehand swing volley winner. Li then blasted her return of serve deep down the middle to draw an error from Cibulkova, taking a 4-1 lead. A service winner down the T made it 5-1 for Li. Cibulkova cracked an inside out forehand on the next point, and Li challenged the call. But the ball caught the edge of the baseline, making it 5-2 for Li rather than 6-1.

Cibulkova closed the gap to 5-3, keeping a backhand passing shot low to set up a nifty forehand passing shot winner. But Li stuck with a winning policy. She wisely went deep down the middle with her return and backed Cibulkova up on her heels. Cibulkova netted the backhand. Li then closed out the sequence with a crosscourt backhand that provoked a netted backhand from Cibulkova. Set to Li, 7-3 in the tie-break. She would never look back.

Li was down 0-30 in the opening game of the second set but collected four points in a row. At 30-30, she sent a forehand down the line, made a delayed approach, and put away a forehand swing volley. Cibulkova took a 30-0 lead in the second game, but double faulted on the third point. Li pounced, breaking on a run of four consecutive points for 2-0. She served an ace for 40-0 in the third game before a resolute Cibulkova took the next two points. Li promptly closed out that game brilliantly, pounding away until she got a relatively short ball, finishing it off with another impeccably struck backhand down the line for a winner.

Now ahead 3-0, Li was soaring while Cibulkova was wilting. At 30-30 in the fourth game, Li dazzled the audience. A well-directed inside out forehand provoked a weak reply from Cibulkova, and Li stepped in, connecting boldly for a backhand crosscourt winner. At break point, Li shined brightly once more, swinging freely at a backhand crosscourt return, backing Cibulkova up. Cibulkova could not cope with the speed and depth of that return. It was 4-0 for Li. Despite a 0-30 deficit in the fifth game, Li was now imperturbable. She won four points in a row for 5-0, claiming the last one with a forehand winner down the line.

Poor Cibulkova was helpless. She drifted to 15-40 in the sixth game, saved one match point, but could not contain the surging and purposeful Li. On the second match point, Cibulkova missed a routine crosscourt forehand long. Li had triumphed 7-6 (3), 6-0 for her long awaited second major crown. In the second set, Li won 24 of 36 points. Only three other Australian Open women’s champions (in the Open Era) have recovered from match point down in the course of taking their titles: Monica Seles in 1991, Jennifer Capriati in 2002, and Serena Williams in 2003 and 2005. Li has joined some very exclusive company.

With this victory, Li will move from No. 4 up to No. 3 in the world. More importantly, she has set the stage for a potentially spectacular 2014 season by virtue of capturing the first of the four majors. Li will turn 32 on February 26. She has perhaps two more years of playing at this level, and that is good news for followers of the women’s game. In the middle of last year, she strongly contemplated retirement, but reconsidered, and decided to play on. She must feel vindicated now. The hope here is that she keeps plugging away diligently for the rest of this year and beyond; she just might be capable of securing one more major along the way. Li Na is one of the most entertaining performers in her field. Her sense of humor is extraordinary, her game great fun to watch. The sport is fortunate to have her out there among the best in the profession.
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Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for tennischannel.com since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.