Li's Magical Sojourn In Melbourne
Published January 26, 2014 12:14
MELBOURNE, Australia - Perhaps it was Li Na's destiny to win the Australian Open. It's something the now two-time Grand Slam champion pondered after beating Dominika Cibulkova, 76(3) 60, in Saturday's final.
"Maybe, because last year I was falling down and I was unlucky," she said. "It give me back for this year."
Last year, of course, Li injured her ankle in the finale against Victoria Azarenka, but that wasn't it. She took another tumble, striking the back of her head on the court in a spill as painful as it was nasty. Azarenka triumphed in three sets.
As Li put it back then, "I was feeling like, 'How many years I didn't fall down in the court? It was amazing. It was twice on the court, even."
If that was an unlikely occurrence, so is claiming a Grand Slam tournament after saving a match point, which is exactly what Li did this fortnight Down Under.
In the end, then, the tennis gods had her covered all along, although 'saving' might be the wrong term when discussing Lucie Safarova's glorious opportunity against the Chinese baseliner in the third round.
With ample space down the line and Safarova given time to set up for the shot, the towering Czech sent a backhand long by the narrowest of margins at 5-6 in the second set.
Li survived and didn't surrender a set the rest of the event, proceeding to take out dangerous Russian Ekaterina Makarova, resurgent Italian veteran Flavia Pennetta and fearless Canadian teen Eugenie Bouchard prior to the title decider versus the diminutive - but big-hitting - Cibulkova.
And it didn't hurt that top seed Serena Williams and Azarenka bowed out earlier than expected. More good fortune?
"During the time I really couldn't think that I was lucky because after I saved the match point I still had to play," said Li. "You still have the chance to lose the match. I was saying now, I believe this is lucky."
Li's coach, Carlos Rodriguez, had been there before with his former charge, Justine Henin, in 2005. Henin fended off two match points against Svetlana Kuznetsova in the fourth round of the French Open before dropping only 13 games in the ensuing three encounters at her beloved Roland Garros.
A smile crossed Rodriguez's face when told he'd now guided two players who had saved match points en route to a Grand Slam title.
Moments earlier in the player restaurant, he and Li exchanged a hug, with Rodriguez uttering, "I'm so proud of you" and "It's only the beginning."
"After the Makarova match, I tell you what, I thought not that she was going to win it but she's going to be completely another player because the difference between the Safarova match and the Makarova match was big," he said. "The third set against Safarova was very good.
"After that she played great."
Li must have added to her already massive fan base after her funny speech on court Saturday, when she thanked her agent, Max Eisenbud, for making her "rich" and discussed her husband and hitting partner, Jiang Shan.
Several hours later, despite doing a host of interviews, she still appeared fresh and didn't lose the sense of humor.
Asked if she was still hungry - presumably to achieve further success in tennis - she quipped: "Of course. I didn't have dinner."
Hopefully Li, undefeated in 2014 and sitting atop the Road To Singapore leaderboard, managed to get a bite to eat following her magical sojourn in Melbourne.
~ Ravi Ubha (@raviubha) is based in London but currently on site in Melbourne. He has written for ESPN.com, CNN.com, the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, and is also a tennis broadcaster.