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LIVE BLOG: Australian Open Women's Final (Li vs. Cibulkova)

Jan 24th 2014

After a tournament of upsets, an improbable final pits world No. 4 Li Na against Dominika Cibulkova, a tiny Slovakian outside the top 20 who is contesting her first major final.  Will order be restored, or will the Australian Open surprise us with one last twist?

Dominika Cibulkova

Prematch:  A golden opportunity knocks for Li, who could become the first woman to win the Australian Open without facing any opponent ranked in the top 20.  She has reached the final in Melbourne three times over the last four years, so she will hope to make the third time the charm.  In each of her two previous finals, Li won the first set before losing the next two, a rarity in women's finals at majors over the last decade.  Since she saved a match point in the third round against Lucie Safarova, the Chinese star has been merciless.  Li has dismissed her last three opponents for the loss of 12 total games, and she heads into this final knowing that she has won all four of her previous meetings with Cibulkova.

Being the heavy underdog has suited the Slovakian brilliantly throughout the fortnight, on the other hand.  Cibulkova seeks to knock off her third top-five opponent of this Australian Open, following victories over No. 3 Maria Sharapova in the fourth round and No. 5 Agnieszka Radwanska in the semifinals.  Her only three-setter came against Sharapova, while four of her other five opponents have won three or fewer games.  The million-dollar question here, and the question that will shape this final:  how will she respond to the magnitude of the situation?

Examples abound of first-time major finalists who have embraced the moment from Maria Sharapova at Wimbledon 2004 to Francesca Schiavone at Roland Garros 2010, Petra Kvitova at Wimbledon 2011, and Victoria Azarenka on this court two years ago.  The odds against each of them seemed to embolden those champions, whereas other debutantes crumbled from nerves.  Players in that group since 2007 include Marion Bartoli, Ana Ivanovic, Dinara Safina, and Vera Zvonareva.  Bartoli and Ivanovic would break through eventually, but their first attempts were ugly. 

Li has jumped out to a fast start in her last few matches, taking 5-0 leads in four of her last five sets.  She should be primed to take advantage of any early frailty across the net, so Cibulkova needs to assert herself from the outset.  First ball is shortly after 7:30 PM Melbourne time (3:30 AM ET, 12:30 AM PT).  Updates will follow after each changeover, and closing thoughts will appear after the match ends.  

Li 2*-1:  An ominous start for Cibulkova with two overhit groundstrokes on the first two points, but she is not the only edgy woman out there.  Li returns the favor with groundstroke errors of her own as the final starts with a multiple-deuce game on the Slovak's serve.  We can expect many more breaks in this matchup than we saw last night in the semifinal between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer.  Neither woman wins many free points on her serve.  Li converts her second break point, or rather has it handed to her when Cibulkova double-faults.  The underdog then lets the favorite off the hook with routine errors off her return of serve.  Down 15-30 initially, Li regroups to get the hold and the fast start that she wanted.  

This match could get ugly quickly if Cibulkova can't shake her nerves and get on the board.  Li earns a chance for a double break and stings a backhand return down the line, but her opponent reacts just fast enough to stay in the point.  Cibulkova eventually outmaneuvers Li at the net with a passing shot that should give her confidence moving forward.  She needs to save another break point before holding serve as the two finalists climb above 15 unforced errors between them.  

Li 3*-2:  Groundstroke depth gets the job done more regularly for Li in her next service game, forcing her opponent behind the baseline early in the rally to open up angles for winners.  Cibulkova can't do much damage from so deep in the court, so she'll have to rely on her defense if Li sticks with that tactic.  And, despite her smooth movement, relying on defense is not likely to end well on a hard court that has played relatively fast this tournament.  Cibulkova nearly allows a 40-0 lead to evaporate during her next service game, but she escapes when Li overhits again.  This match hasn't produced many memorable exchanges so far.

Cibulkova 4-3*:  A double fault yielded Cibulkova's first service game to Li, and consecutive double faults yield Li's third service game to Cibulkova.  Li's coach, Carlos Rodriguez, has urged her to shorten points by coming to the net.  While she has improved steadily in that area under his guidance, she still is more comfortable from the baseline.  In pressure situations, players tend to retreat into their familiar comfort zones.  That is what Li has done in some rallies when she has had opportunities to move forward, although losing her first three net points did little to encourage her.  A second straight comfortable hold for Cibulkova gives the 20th seed her first lead of the final.  The pressure is on the favorite now.

Cibulkova 5-4*:  One area that separates Li from most of Cibulkova's previous opponents is her ability to transition from defense to offense, and back again, as the point requires.  She also plays with more margin on her groundstrokes than she did earlier in her career.  Those traits help Li navigate through a cleaner service game when she needed it.  Neither woman has played many close matches in this tournament, one three-setter apiece standing out amid a cascade of routs.  It will be intriguing to see how each finalist handles the pressure of a set that hinges on a handful of points, as this first set will.  An unsightly multiple-deuce game on Cibulkova's serve balances double faults from the Slovak with groundstroke unforced errors from Li.  The more outwardly intense of the two women, Cibulkova emerges with a hold that keeps her opponent's back to the wall in this set.

Li 6*-5:  Just because Li doesn't show as much emotion doesn't mean that she lacks desire.  A quiet fistpump after a disciplined hold reveals her intent.  Li's husband, Jiang Shan, is much less reserved in applauding his lady's efforts.  Looking below the surface, the two finalists have played several close sets against each other despite Li's commanding lead in their head-to-head.  The Chinese woman has won all of those sets, so she may feel confident in her ability to secure the first set of this final.  A sixth double fault from Cibulkova opens the door for Li.  Finally, she pounces and earns the chance to serve for the first set. 

As the set climbs toward the one-hour mark, the world No. 4 struggles to stay patient on serve.  Even the most seasoned veterans must remind themselves to keep their poise in moments like these.  Li exhorts herself emphatically after a crisp backhand winner, and then she chastises herself just as emphatically after spraying a backhand wide on set point.  Converting her second break point, Cibulkova forces a tiebreak.  The underdog seems to realize that she has nothing to lose tonight, and the magnitude of the situation merely seems to make her bolder.

An early exchange of mini-breaks during the tiebreak leads to one of the set's more entertaining rallies.  At 1-2, Li carefully constructs a baseline point that wrong-foots Cibulkova and exploits her less agile movement toward her backhand corner.  Rodriguez must approve of the way that she ends it, charging into the forecourt to put away a swing volley.  Taking time away from Cibulkova has been the only way to keep her at bay in this tournament.  Rolling to a commanding 5-1 lead in the tiebreak, Li soon tucks away the first set of an Australian Open final for the third time in four years.  

The good news for Li is that 27 of the last 29 women's finals at majors have gone to the woman who wins the first set.  The bad news is that she is responsible for both of the exceptions, and both of them came at this tournament.  Cibulkova rallied from losing the first set to world No. 3 Maria Sharapova in the fourth round, so she is unlikely to surrender against the world No. 4.  

Li wins the first set 7-6(3)

Li 7-6 3-0*:  Sometimes the end of a close first set spawns a lull at the start of the second set.  Each player must force herself to regroup and restart the grind from the beginning.  After dropping her first two service points of the set, Li stays in the rallies long enough to draw errors from Cibulkova.  The Slovak knows that an uphill battle awaits, but still she cannot afford to start pressing from frustration against an opponent who covers the court so well.  A crisp return winner from Li sets up an early break point on Cibulkova's serve. Greeted with a yelp of joy, a wild forehand gives the Chinese woman the upper hand in the second set.  Gradually, Li has started to find her range from the baseline, whereas Cibulkova continues to search for hers.  

Li 7-6 5-0*:  The fat lady hasn't sung yet, as the old expression would have it, but she is starting to clear her throat.  The depth and explosiveness has started to fade from Cibulkova's groundstrokes, suggesting fatigue.  Li now has more time to line up her targets and more openings from which to choose.  An insurance break in the fourth game arrives with a booming cross-court backhand return that Cibulkova can't handle.  Anticlimax surely lies ahead now.  Or does it?  Sensing the finish line, Li starts to tighten.  Still unwilling to accept defeat, Cibulkova continues to swing freely and threatens to regain one of the breaks.  For the second time this set, however, Li digs out of a 0-30 hole and stands one game from the title.

Everyone in the stadium knows that the conclusion is essentially foregone at this stage.  Li quickly wraps up the third bagel in the last six women's finals at the Australian Open, making the third time the charm.  The first Chinese woman to win a major, Li becomes the first Chinese woman to win the Grand Slam of Asia and the Pacific as well.  

Li wins the match and the 2014 Australian Open women's singles title, 7-6(3) 6-0

Postmatch:  It is difficult to overstate Li's dominance in the latter stages of the tournament after she saved match point in the third round against Lucie Safarova.  (One of the great what-ifs in Australian Open history will ask what might have happened had Safarova's backhand landed five centimeters shorter than it did.)  Playing with house money from that moment onward, she lost no more than six games in any of the four matches that followed.  Skeptics will point out that Li faced no top-16 seed in the tournament or any of her usual nemeses, such as Serena Williams or Victoria Azarenka, but she cannot be blamed for the premature stumbles of those rivals.

Once she became the title favorite, moreover, Li wore that mantle with much greater poise than the other women who had worn it.  She did not play her best match in the final, but she used her veteran experience to find a route through it.  As her 32nd birthday approaches next month, she will rise to world No. 3 and to the brink of a career-high No. 2.  Li has won 16 of her last 17 matches and has claimed titles at consecutive tournaments for the first time in her career.  Always a fast starter, she has captured five of her nine total titles in January.  

Far from overwhelmed in the crucial early stages of the final, Cibulkova acquitted herself well under the brightest spotlight in the sport.  She came within three points of claiming the first set, weathering its rugged peaks and valleys as well as her more experienced opponent did.  Now inside the top 15, Cibulkova will enjoy a higher ranking and more favorable draws at tournaments ahead.  The opportunity will be hers to build on this accomplishment and continue to prove that her small stature will not hold her back.  Plenty of her career still lies ahead of her at age 24.  

In the end, order was restored at an Australian Open riddled with upsets.  But it was merely the last brick in the winding yellow road of Oz.  Check back after our coverage of the men's final for a report card on the women's tournament, start to finish.