China's Li storms to second Slam title
Li Na (right) hugs Dominika Cibulkova after winning their women's singles final at the Australian Open in Melbourne on January 25, 2014 - by William West
The 31-year-old fourth seed's 7-6 (7/3), 6-0 win crowned her the champion on her third attempt after losing the 2011 and 2013 finals, adding to the French Open title she won three years ago.
In doing so, she became the oldest winner of the women's title, surpassing Margaret Court who was 30 when she became champion in 1973.
The Chinese star also joins an exclusive list of just seven other players to win a Grand Slam at 30-plus, with her name now in the history books alongside greats such as Martina Navratilova, Billie Jean King, Chris Evert and Serena Williams.
While it was Li's fourth Grand Slam final, it was the first for Cibulkova and that crucial experience was put to good use to take out the Slovak after a tight first set lasting 70 minutes.
"I would like to say age is nothing. I can still win a Grand Slam," Li said. "So I'm pretty happy about my age. I got more experience on the court."
The win pushes her one place higher in the world rankings to three, just 11 points adrift of Victoria Azarenka in second place behind Serena Williams.
It was a gutsy effort by the Chinese star, who overcame the pressure of having lost twice before while bearing the weight of expectation from her homeland of 1.3 billion people.
After her win, the state-run Xinhua news agency led the praise in China for a player affectionately known as "big sister" by her adoring fans.
"Congratulations sister Na!" it said on its Weibo microblog.
Li's 2011 French Open victory, the first Grand Slam win by an Asian player, dramatically raised the profile of tennis in China and she has become the figurehead for a push into Asia by women's tennis.
"Tough," she said when asked to sum up the fortnight at Melbourne Park, where she had to battle searing heat and rally from a match point down in her third round clash with Lucie Safarova.
While the diminutive Cibulkova, nicknamed the "pocket rocket" has been in the best form of her life, Li was always the favourite and the Slovak said it had been a learning curve.
"This has been a fantastic two weeks of my life and I think I'm going to cry," said a tearful Cibulkova, 24, the first person from her country to make a Grand Slam final.
Li got off to the best possible start, going 1-0 up on the Cibulkova serve when the Slovak gifted her the game with a double-fault.
The Chinese star comfortably held, with the Slovak, 24, struggling to produce any decisive returns.
But she crucially came through the third game, fighting off two break points to stay in touch at 1-2.
Li held in the next as she dictated the rallies, but her first serve was becoming a serious problem.
After three service games she had only got 13 percent of first serves in and was seen looking at
her husband Jiang Shan in the crowd while pointing to her racquet.
This opened door for Cibulkova, with two Li double-faults allowing her to break back for 3-3. A decisive service game then put the Slovak in front for the first time.
But Li soon ironed out her problems and it went with serve till 5-5 when she pounced, stroking a sumptuous cross-court backhand for break point. A Cibulkova backhand into the net put Li 6-5 up and serving for the set.
But Li was unable to ram home the advantage and it went to tiebreak, in which Li finally prevailed.
She kept up the pressure, holding serve in the second set then breaking Cibulkova to take a firm grip, racing to a 3-0 lead then breaking again as Cibulkova ran out of steam.
She won on the Cibulkova serve when the Slovak sent a forehand long, raising her arms in celebration before climbing into the stands to greet her husband and coach Carlos Rodriguez.
The win helps Li make up for the misery of losing the final twice before when she was a set up against both Kim Clijsters in 2011 and Victoria Azarenka last year.