Li Na overcomes shaky first set to beat Cibulkova, win Aussie Open
MELBOURNE, Australia -- Three thoughts after Li Na beat Dominika Cibulkova, 7-6 (3), 6-0 to win the 2014 Australian Open women's title.
• That inane-but-irresistible meme about which world city suits you best? For Li, the answer is obvious: Melbourne. For the third time since 2011 she reached the final at the Australian Open, and Saturday she officially broke through, winning the title. The climate suits her. The fast court on Rod Laver Arena -- where she inevitably plays -- suits her. In this Pan-Pacific Slam, she is immensely popular with the crowds.
Playing against a lesser-ranked, less-experienced and less-powerful opponent, the match was hers to lose. And she didn't. After some patchy moments in the first when her forehand went into the breakdown lane, Li collected herself. Riding her backhand -- the best in the women's game -- she outlasted Cibulkova in the first set and then cruised home with a purposeful and businesslike second set, simply overwhelming Cibulkova and dictating points. Over the last four years, Li has a 22-3 record at the Australian Open. She'll will rise to third in the WTA rankings, only 11 points behind No. 2 Victoria Azarenka. Cibulkova will be ranked No. 13 on Monday.
• Put a player in a Grand Slam final for the first time and the range of outcomes is vast. Some decide to seize the moment. From Serena Williams to Maria Sharapova to Francesca Schiavone, a number of players has summoned their best stuff the first time they played a match with a major on the line. In the other cases, the occasion has kicked the player in the butt. (To wit: Sabine Lisicki's inability to hit basic shots in the 2013 Wimbledon final.)
While she didn't win the match, Dominika Cibulkova fares well on this continuum. After a few shaky points in the beginning, she settled in and played generally unflustered tennis. She didn't serve at the level than enabled her to beat two other top five players -- Maria Sharapova and Agnieszka Radwanska -- this week, and simply lost to a superior opponent.
Much as we root for players with one-handed backhands, it's easy to get behind a 5-foot-3 competitor who stands only 21 inches higher than the net but likes to try and dictate play, especially off the forehand. Cibulkova did herself proud this event. As a parting gift, she leaves with $1.3 million -- roughly double her entire 2013 prize money -- a boatload of ranking points, and elevated esteem.
• Let's not forget the two inches by which Lucie Safarova's forehand on match point missed the line in the third round. Two inches closer, and Safarova would have knocked Li Na out of the tournament. Since that scare, Li played at a level that ranged from exceptional to passable, winning nine straight sets, and claiming her second Grand Slam.
This win comes with all sorts of consequences. Winning the first major of 2014, Li is well-positioned for the rest of the year. Two majors is generally enough for enshrinement in the International Tennis Hall of Fame, so Li likely achieved that Saturday. But the macro effects are truly significant. Asia -- and China especially -- is clearly tennis' emerging market. Tournaments are moving there en masse. The WTA will hold its year-end championships in Singapore. This trend is driven largely by Li -- her success, her influence, her appeal. And it got another charge Saturday.