Li Na is finally the champion in Melbourne Park. (Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)
MELBOURNE, Australia -- The third time was the charm. No. 4 Li Na overcame her nervy play to defeat No. 20 Dominika Cibulkova 7-6 (3), 6-0 and win the Australian Open women's title. This is Li's second major title after winning the French Open in 2011, when she became the first Asian player to win a Grand Slam. Her victory will push her to No. 3 in the WTA rankings on Monday, just 11 points behind No. 2 Victoria Azarenka.
Li survived her own scratchy play in the first set, in which she hit 19 unforced errors off her forehand side, and pocketed the first set tiebreaker. After overcoming a bout of early nerves, Cibulkova played well enough to keep Li uncomfortable, but was ultimately let down by her serve. The Slovakian, the first Grand Slam finalist from her country, hit seven double-faults at seemingly the most inopportune times of the match. Once Li won the first set, she relaxed and played her best tennis of the match. After an hour and 37 minutes, Li finally got her well-earned trophy.
"Before [I came] to the court I was tell myself, Don't think about it," Li said after the match, trying to explain her nerves. "Just play your game. Don't think about the final. But the situation, you cannot [think] this is [a] normal match. Final is the final. Beginning was little bit tough. But I think I start when the tiebreak start. I was thinking about, Okay, now you have to go, otherwise it's very tough for you."
"She was the one who was dictating the game," Cibulkova said. "Today I can only regret that my serve was not really there ‑ maybe because I felt not a little nervous, but my serve wasn't working, you know. Then she could push me from the first balls, and I was under pressure all the times. Sometimes I catch myself running one meter behind the baseline. That's not how I play."
Game-by-game analysis of Li's major triumph below:
5:29 a.m. ET | Li Na defeats Dominika Cibulkova 7-6 (3), 6-0 to win the Australian Open title.
Li plays her best game of the entire match, hitting big, deep and crisp shots off both sides, and nailing some fantastic winners. She earns two match points and gives her box a long hard look as she towels off. She doesn't get the first one, but she does win the second one when Cibulkova sends a forehand just long. She throws her hands in the air, and you can see some tears. Amazing effort from her to battle through those nerves.
Li joins some nice set names in becoming the fourth woman to have won the Australian Open after saving a match point: Monica Seles (1991), Jennifer Capriati (2002) and Serena Williams (2003 and 2005).
Li: 2 aces, 3 double-faults, 60 percent first serves in, 68 percent second serves won, 5 of 10 on break points, 8 for 13 at the net, 34 winners and 30 unforced errors (19 off the forehand).
Cibulkova: 0 aces, 7 double-faults, 67 percent first serves in, 59 percent serves won, 2 of 3 on break points, 3 of 4 at the net, 11 winners and 28 unforced errors.
"This was just the most fantastic two weeks of my life. I think I'm gonna cry," Cibulkova says, with a big smile on her face and tears in her eyes. She has so much to be proud of; she beat four top 16 seeds to make her first major final, and will rise to No. 13 in the WTA rankings on Monday. Can't take anything away from her run.
"Finally I can got her," Li says as she puts down the trophy to give her speech. "Now I thank my team. Max, agent, make me rich. Thank you."
"And now, my husband, even more famous in China. Thanks for him to give up everything to travel with me.... Thanks a lot, you're a nice guy. Also you are so lucky you found me."
Li Na is absolutely killing it. No other victory speech will ever compare to this one.
Li Na is hilarious!! Great speech! #stilllaughing #AusOpen
— Caroline Wozniacki (@CaroWozniacki) January 25, 2014
Best speech like ever? Li Na. #ledge @AustralianOpen
— Donna Vekic (@DonnaVekic) January 25, 2014
5:11 a.m. ET | Li breaks, leads *5-0.
Just what the doctor ordered: Li gets a second break in hand. Just like in last year's final, Li is two games away from the title.
She steps to the line and consolidates the break at 30. She's one game away from the title and playing much cleaner tennis now.
5:06 a.m. ET | Li breaks, leads *3-0.
Li gets the early break in the second set. I think we just saw this nerve-wracking movie an hour ago. Let's see if she can consolidate. This is all about emotions for Li, and I was impressed with how well she held it all together in the first set, when things were on the verge of spiraling out of her control.
Li does hold. It's a tense affair out there, but her game is slowly settling down. Having a one set lead will calm you down. Then again, she's been a set away from this title twice. Still a long way to go.
4:52 a.m. ET | Li Na wins the first set 7-6 (3)
Somehow, Li escapes with the first set, surviving her own rash of forehand errors and bad serves. She hit 23 winners and 25 unforced errors in that set, with 16 of those errors flying off the forehand side. Her first serve, which should be a weapon against Cibulkova, also failed her. She served at 52 percent and only won 50 percent of those points. In fact, she's winning more of her second serve points than first serve points. That may have worked for Rafael Nadal last night against Federer, but not for Li.
She's not out of trouble yet. That first set gave Cibulkova a game plan and some confidence.
Here's how the tiebreak played out:
1-0, Li: She gets the minibreak with a forehand return winner.
2-0, Li: Backhand down the line winner from Li. She can still rely on that shot.
2-1, Li: Cibulkova gets a minibreak back when she yanks Li wide to her forehand, and then puts away the forehand winner.
3-1, Li: Li somehow doesn't lose her cool during at 14 shot rally that has Chinese fans yelling during the point. She's hanging onto her emotions by a thread. You can tell she's completely blindsided by this performance.
4-1, Li: Cibulkova with a backhand error.
5-1, Li: Service winner. Is Li Na about to prove that you can win a set of tennis without a forehand?
5-2, Li: Cibulkova clips the baseline with a winner, and Li can't believe it when Hawk-Eye confirms it's in.
5-3, Li: Incredible defense from Cibulkova and she beats Li at the net. Her speed gets her up to a drop volley and she fires the forehand crosscourt pass.
6-3, Li: Li jams Cibulkova with a return, and the Slovak puts the ball into the net. Set points.
7-3: Cibulkova puts a backhand into the net, and Li takes the first set.
4:44 a.m. ET | Cibulkova breaks back, tied 6-6.
Cibulkova keeps hitting at the Li forehand but she seems to have better measure of it now. Hilariously, the crowd groans every time she winds up for a forehand.
At 30-all, Cibulkova draws Li into the net and wins the point after Li slips on her split step and duffs the volley into the net. But Li saves break point with a sharp-angled forehand winner. It wasn't pretty, but it was effective. She earns set point on a rare Cibulkova error but a bad backhand gets it back to deuce.
Cibulkova finally breaks with some good aggressive play. We're going to a tiebreak.
4:36 a.m. ET | Li breaks, leads *6-5.
Li holds at 30 in a tense game. She has indeed sent off her rackets to be restrung at a different tension.
An opening for Li as she finally hits a forehand winner (it's possible!) off a return, and then Cibulkova throws in her sixth double-fault to fall behind 15-30. Then she plays her best point of the match. As the crowd oohs and ahhs at their shots and a plane flies overhead, Li breaks open the point with a deep cross court forehand, and then leans into a backhand cross court for her 16th winner. Break points.
Li gets a forehand return and sends it right at Cibulkova's feet and the Slovakian nets the reply. Break to Li and she'll try and serve out the set.
4:27 a.m. ET | Cibulkova holds, leads 5-4*.
Li stops the run of two games with a hold at 15. Li's forehand is still keeping Cibulkova in this match, though. It's incredible how poorly she's hitting it and her frustration is seeping into her entire game.
Li hits her 12th forehand error wide to give Cibulkova game point and throws up her hands. That shot is just not there for her at all. Cibulkova gives her another chance when she double-faults on game point, and then Li hits an amazing backhand winner. But there's forehand unforced error No. 13 off Li's racket and Cibulkova eventually holds.
After a rash of early errors, Cibulkova has really knuckled down. She's peppering her shots to the Li forehand and minimizing her own errors. She definitely has the momentum.
4:15 a.m. ET | Cibulkova breaks, leads 4-3*.
22-shot rally is the longest and best rally of the match so far, and Cibulkova wins it with her second winner of the match, a backhand at the net. Nice movement from both women and that might be the type of point that can really settle these two down to play some good tennis. They both need to find their rhythm.
The errors are still coming from Li. She throws in a forehand long and then double-faults on back to back points to hand over her break advantage. As her husband throws up his hands to ask her "What?" she points to the strings on he racket. She may not like the tension.
Cibulkova consolidates and the Aussie crowd, who are split between backing the underdog and their beloved fan favorite, roar.
4:08 a.m. ET | Li holds, leads *3-2.
Li is burning Cibulkova with her backhand, particularly down the line. She needs to get the ball on Li's forehand. Through the first four games Li has hit 5 of her 6 winners off her backhand side while her forehand is the one leaking errors, producing 5 of her 8 unforced.
Li throws in three more forehand errors Cibulkova holds. Not a great start for both women. Cibulkova has 1 winner to 12 unforced, while Li has 6 winners to 12 unforced through five games.
3:58 a.m. ET | Li breaks, leads *2-1.
First blood to Li after Cibulkova double-faults twice in her opening service game, including on break point. Li consolidates at 30.
Pam Shriver caught up with Li's coach Carlos Rodriguez and asked him what he told Li before the match. "Don't think about winning. Just think about playing, think about the gameplan. Put her in the zone."
Despite the 2-0 lead, this hasn't been the cleanest start for Li. Some great strikes for winners are followed up by some bad misses as she struggles with her timing. Make no mistake, this may be her fourth Grand Slam final, but Li is nervous too. You can see that in how badly she's missing her forehand.
Cibulkova gives up her third break point but saves it with a nice forehand passing shot. Good to see Li get herself up to the net there, even if it didn't work. She saves it when Li sends a forehand wide and she holds. That's a big hold for Cibulkova to both avoid falling behind two breaks and to get on the board.
3:40 a.m. ET | Warm up
The roof is open, the temperatures are mild, and the players are set to walk out onto Rod Laver Arena for what will be a life-changing night for both women. For Li, winning a second major would put her career in hall-of-fame territory and consolidate her late-career comeback. For Cibulkova, it's hard not to think this might be her best and only chance to win a major.
The players are smiling as they take the court. Walking through the tunnel, Cibulkova couldn't help but look at all the posters of past champions and struggled to keep a straight face. Li was straight-faced and looking straight ahead. She's done this walk before.
Here's my preview of the match. I'm taking Li in straight sets, which is obviously the safe and boring pick. She's been very good through these last few rounds, and her game can get Cibulkova on the run quickly. Her serve is also better than Cibulkova's and better than Cibulkova's last two opponents (and better than Sharapova was serving in that match).
Li will move up to No. 3 on Monday and if she wins tonight she'll be just 11 points behind No. 2 Azarenka. Cibulkova has surged up to No. 13 and could reach her career-high ranking of No. 11 if she wins.
Two stats going in Li's favor: She hasn't lost to a player ranked outside the top 20 since the Rogers Cup last year and she hasn't lost to a player ranked below her in a final since 2009.
One notable stat for Cibulkova: In her three WTA title runs, she pulled off upsets in the final.
Cibulkova will serve first. Ready? Play.
A first-time Australian Open champion will be crowned Saturday when No. 4 Li Na meets No. 20 Dominika Cibulkova in the women's final. ESPN will televise the match, which is scheduled to begin at 7:30 p.m. local time (3:30 a.m. ET).
This is familiar territory for Li, who made the final in 2011 and '13. The 31-year-old almost didn't make it out of the third round this year; she had to save a match point against No. 26 Lucie Safarova. Since then, though, the 2011 French Open champion has cruised to straight-set victories over No. 22 Ekaterina Makarova, No. 28 Flavia Pennetta and No. 30 Eugenie Bouchard.
Cibulkova has been even more dominant in advancing to her first major final. The 24-year-old from Slovakia has dished out three bagel sets and four 6-1 sets. And the competition hasn't been weak: She's crushed No. 16 Carla Suarez Navarro, No. 11 Simona Halep and No. 5 Agnieszka Radwanska, along with a 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 upset of No. 3 Maria Sharapova in the fourth round. Cibulkova, a powerful ball striker despite her 5-foot-3 frame, can be erratic, but she's been dialed in throughout the first Slam of the year.
Li has won all four meetings. Their only match on an outdoor hard court was Li's 7-6 (1), 6-2 victory at the Rogers Cup last August.