MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Li Na’s memories of her previous Australian Open finals are not fond ones as she prepares for a third at Melbourne Park on Saturday against first-time finalist Dominika Cibulkova of Slovakia.
In 2011 against Kim Clijsters, she took the first set before the Belgian rallied to clinch her fourth, and final, grand slam title. Last year’s final was even worse for the Chinese.
She rolled her ankle twice, fell over and smacked her head so badly doctors had to administer a concussion test and then lost 4-6 6-4 6-3 to Victoria Azarenka.
“I really wish I can win the title,” Li said on Friday when asked about how much it would mean for her to win after two previous failures. “I (am) always looking forward to play back here.
“I think I’m ready.”
The 31-year-old Chinese, who became Asia’s first grand slam champion when she won the 2011 French Open title, was close to not making it to the final. She fought off a match point in the third round against Lucie Safarova before the fourth seed scraped to a 1-6 7-6 (2) 6-3 victory in two hours, 27 minutes.
Li said she had been had asked several pointed questions by coach Carlos Rodriguez about that performance, which had turned around her focus and propelled her into the final.
That third round match notwithstanding, Li has been rarely troubled in her path to the final though she has had one noticeable flaw - she has a tendency to take her foot off the gas when she has her opponent down for the kill.
In the semi-final against Canadian teenager Eugenie Bouchard she jumped out to a 5-0 lead then had to battle for the next four games as the 19-year-old sensed she could conjure a comeback to take a 2-0 lead in the second.
Li’s experience, however, then kicked in and she won six of the next eight games to advance to the final against the diminutive Cibulkova, whose aggressive play at Melbourne Park suggests she is unlikely to let such an opportunity go.
At 1.60-metres (5’3”), Cibulkova is one of the shortest players on the WTA Tour, but what she lacks in height the Slovak more than makes up with a strong physique that allows her to match the heaviest hitters of the game.
Cibulkova was particularly impressive from the fourth round on at Melbourne Park, beating 2008 champion Maria Sharapova then destroying counter-punchers Simona Halep and Agnieszka Radwanska.
The 24-year-old was impressive attacking her opponents’ service game, especially on the second serve, and used her speed and footwork to run down potential winners or around short returns and hammer them back with a wicked forehand.
“It’s not about how tall are you. Even if you are tall, it doesn’t mean that you are 100 percent going to make it, you know,” she said when asked if her height was a disadvantage.
“It’s just you have to really want something and just believe in it. There is nothing more important than this.”
Cibulkova made her first grand slam semi-final at Roland Garros in 2009 and while she has been bothered by small injuries in the last few years, her inconsistency has been her biggest issue, which accounts for her inability to crack the top-10.
The 24-year-old has 21 career victories over players in the top-10, including two against top-five players at Melbourne Park in the last week, but was also defeated in the first round 10 times in 2013.
“This top-10 talk, I don’t want to talk about it anymore,” she snapped after her 6-1 6-2 demolition of fifth seed Radwanska in the semi-finals.
“So many years that everybody (has) kept telling me ‘you should be top 10; why (are) you not top-10?’ I’m just not.”
Should Cibulkova win the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup on Saturday, she would be the first Slovak to win a grand slam title and it would also be her first win against Li in their five career meetings.
“She has been in the finals of grand slam many times,” Cibulkova said. “She has already won a grand slam, so she know how it is.
It will be my first grand slam final (and) ... that’s something beautiful.
“It’s like a dream. So I will go just out there and play my best, try to do my best.”
Writing by Greg Stutchbury in Wellington; Editing by Patrick Johnston