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Pucin: Li Na Proving A Point

Li Na and Dominika Cibulkova are two of the hottest players of the year, and they're also proving a point - Diane Pucin takes a look at the Australian Open finalists for wtatennis.com.

Published March 27, 2014 12:12

MIAMI, FL, USA - To watch Li Na battle game little Dominika Cibulkova for three long, grueling, sweaty sets Thursday night at the Sony Open Tennis in Miami was a treat.

For what it showed is that you don't have to come in the giant size to be at the top of the women's game.

The other semifinal, where Serena Williams beat Maria Sharapova, was the demonstration of one kind of tennis. The big boom kind.

But Cibulkova and Li played differently but in a way that was equally enticing.

Li, 32, beat the 24-year-old Cibulkova from Slovakia, 75 26 63. Li. The Chinese woman came from 1-3 down in the final set and survived a late double fault on a match point in a two and a half hour demonstration of fitness and fun, of endless running between the two.

Li, who is seeded second, will now play top-seeded Williams in Saturday's women's final, a tasty test for both. Li, who is 5-feet-7, is working with a new coach this season.

He is Carlos Rodriguez, once noted for coaching Justine Henin, another player who often proved that the big girls and their tremendous power, could be taken.

The diminutive Cibulkova is only 5-feet-3 but the 11th-ranked player on the WTA.

That both players endured unkind conditions with a hot, humid wind kicking up skirts and making the ball skitter, allowed both players to show a variety of shots.

The pair used the entire court. They played lobs and drop shots, calculated angles and worked those through points.

Li, seeded second, just behind Williams, who has a 10-1 winning record against Li and who has won the past nine matches against the No.2 seed, was upbeat about playing the large-hitting and imposing Williams.

"Good challenge I think," she said, well past midnight in Miami. "Last time I played her was in the WTA Championships, so three, four months already.

"Now I can see how I improved in those three, four months so it's a very good challenge for me. I'm really happy I can play against her again."

Over a decade ago it seemed that sooner rather than later there was going to be no place in the game for women the size of Cibulkova, who ranked No.11 in the world, or even Li.

The game was taken over by ladies such as Lindsay Davenport, Sharapova and the Williams sisters, all six feet tall or close to it.

Oftentimes there would be less finesse and more power when that group played and almost always won.

Henin, who was "only" 5'6", eventually retired before she should have, saying once she was tired of always tired of looking up at her opponent.

It's not that size isn't going to matter. In the Top 10, Petra Kvitova, ranked No.8, is 6-feet tall; fourth-ranked and two-time Grand Slam winner Victoria Azarenka is 6-feet tall. Eighth-ranked Jelena Jankovic is an inch shy of 6-feet.

But the smaller girls aren't running away from the game the way it seemed might happen when Henin and the normal-sized Martina Hingis left tennis.

They said privately it had become frustrating always feeling they had been beaten up by the pounding strokes of Davenport or the bombastic serve of the Williams sisters.

Tennis is not only about power.

What's in your head matters as much as how hard you can hit the ball, how big a serve you can achieve, how noisy you can make an overhead sound, how flattening a ball with pure power, that's not all that matters.

Li said Thursday night that she is still learning. Another thing that doesn't matter, she said, is age.

"I don't think if you are getting old it's a bad thing. You can still learn a lot. You have got more experience. You know yourself much better."

Li has started out 2014 with a 21-2 record. She is optimistic about playing Williams who is No.1 in the world. Why?

"I think I am maybe not tall but pretty strong," she said. "And I think I have a pretty strong start to 2014 so I wish it can continue. We'll see."

Diane Pucin has covered tennis for the Philadelphia Inquirer and Los Angeles Times and has been to all four Grand Slam events.

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