By Jane Voigt
January 25, 2014 — Li Na has won her first Australian Open, and her second major title overall, by defeating Dominika Cibulkova. She became the oldest woman ever to win this major and the first Asian woman to win what is frequently called the Asian Pacific Championships.
The rough and tumble first set win by Li opened the gates for her to swing freely. She showed off her best tennis of the night afterward, clinching the title with a bold statement score: 76(3) 60.
Endeared for her sense of humor, Li’s podium speech will go down as one of the funniest, if not the funniest, of all time.
She first thanked her agent Max (Eisenbud) who, “makes me rich.” To Coach Carlos Rodriguez, she spoke respectively, “thank you so much.” Finally, her husband Denis. “Even famous in China,” she started, letting fans bust up with laughter. “Thanks for him. He gives up everything. [He is] my hitting partner. My travel [partner]. Thanks a lot, you’re a nice guy.” Like a polished comedian, she again paused for the audience to giggle. And finally, “You’re so lucky to find me.”
On court, though, neither woman was comic.
This was Cibulkova’s first slam final, with many predicting she would come out nervous and play jittery. Not the case. The five-three Slovakian settled in early and gave it everything. Her serve, which is a weak part of her tennis, certainly provided opportunities for Li Na to assert herself. But the No. 4 seed could not find her rhythm until the tiebreak, although she had the opportunity to put the set away at 6-5.
Being up a set normally gives a player that spark, which ignites their jet pack. Not the case with Li in her two previous finals in Melbourne, where she won the first set and lost the match. In 2011, Kim Clijsters raised the trophy; and, in 2013 Victoria Azarenka grabbed the spotlight.
Today, though, Li rolled.
“After she won first two games, she just, I would say, relaxed,” Cibulkova told the press. “Afterward it was impossible for me to do something and be aggressive because she was just really, really playing well.”
Up one, two, then three breaks … Li Na threw her arms up in victory, after serving up a bagel to the No. 20 seed and winning one of the biggest two-week tests of skill for a world-class athlete.
Cibulkova was brought to tears, during the awards ceremony. “These were the best two weeks of my life.” She told everyone at home hello, too, where she has become the most talked about person throughout the country of 5 million. Li Na is the 3rd most famous person in China, a country of 1.35 billion people.
On Monday Li Na will be ranked No. 3 in the world, only 11 points behind last year’s Australian Open champion, Victoria Azarenka. The year ahead beams bright for the Chinese champion.
Ironically, Li contemplated retirement last August. However, the last half of the year became the most productive of her career. Much of that improvement should be credited to Carlos Rodriguez. On court and in the gym, the Argentine coach has pushed, yelled, and warmed Li to the current heights of her game. He has made her think, too. Why are you here? What do you want to accomplish? And the most frequent bit of advice given unilaterally by coaches, come into the net more.
“You know, when like last year I say I want to be top 3, nobody believe,” Li told the press. “Beginning this year I say I want to win another Grand Slam. Nobody believe. More important is I believe, Carlos believe, my team believe. That’s all.z’