MELBOURNE, Australia — No. 4 Li Na will seek her second major title on Saturday when she faces a first-time Grand Slam finalist, 20th-seeded Dominika Cibulkova, in the Australia Open final.
The path looks paved for Li, 31, to finally win the title in Melbourne, after losing the final in 2011 and ’13. She nearly lost in the third round when No. 26 Lucie Safarova sent a potential winner on match point “five centimeters” long. But a slew of upsets made her draw much easier; not only did Li’s projected semifinal opponent, No. 1 Serena Williams, lose in the fourth round, but other potentially tricky opponents also went down, including No. 6 Petra Kvitova, No. 9 Angelique Kerber, No. 14 Ana Ivanovic and No. 15 Sabine Lisicki.
In fact, the 24th-ranked Cibulkova will be Li’s first top-25 opponent this tournament. That’s a far cry from having to play Kim Clijsters in the 2011 final or having to beat Maria Sharapova and then face Victoria Azarenka in last year’s final. And yet, even in both those matches, she came within a set of winning.
The string of good luck is not lost on Li, who hasn’t lost a final to a lower-ranked player since 2009.
“I really feeling after the match [against Safarova] I was getting second life in this tournament. In China, we say if you have a tough time, you pass that, it means you be so lucky. Or maybe they give me back [the luck] from last year, I don’t know,” she said, laughing.
So is the third time the charm for Li? “In China, numbers six and eight are lucky. … If I lose, I just continue until six or eight,” she said, laughing. That sound you hear is the huge sigh of relief in the tennis community, given the recent revelation that Li considered retiring last year before Wimbledon.
Under coach Carlos Rodriguez, Li continues to improve and make surprisingly significant changes. As reported by The Wall Street Journal, Li has changed the grip on her serve and backhand to get more margin when she’s under pressure; she is also coming to the net with far more frequency, and even serving and volleying. For a 31-year-old to make such a change at this stage of her career signals just how ambitious Li has become. She could have had a perfectly comfortable life as a top-10 player — Forbes listed her as the third-highest-paid female athlete in the world last year — but she backed her ability and potential to be more.
“You’re on the tour so many years, everybody knows exactly how you play,” she said. “Of course, if I didn’t change, I can keep in the top 10, top 20, but I cannot be the best in the world. So I really want to push myself to change a little bit, to see. It’s very tough to [think about it at] first because if you change maybe you lose the old thing. I still trust myself, trust Carlos. I believe after the change is a help for me.”
Across the net, Cibulkova will try to do what her best friend, Marion Bartoli, did last summer at Wimbledon, and become the most surprising Grand Slam champion since Francesca Schiavone lifted the trophy at the 2010 French Open.
“Straight after my semifinal she came into the gym to me,” Cibulkova said. Bartoli is in Melbourne promoting her new fashion line. “She hugged me. We were both crying. She was so happy for me.”
Though she’s ranked outside the top 20 (she could rise to No. 11 if she wins), Cibulkova can’t be overlooked after a dominant, giant-slaying run to the final. She’s lost only one of 13 sets, against No. 3 Sharapova, and has dropped one game or fewer in half those sets. She came back to defeat Sharapova 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 in the fourth round, then lost a combined six games in breezing past No. 11 Simona Halep and No. 5 Agnieszka Radwanska.
Standing at a generously listed 5-foot-3, Cibulkova may be, pound for pound, the biggest hitter in the women’s game. The 24-year-old from Slovakia launches her diminutive but powerful frame into every shot, flying into the air to combat the heavy topspin and power of her opponents. Her game has little margin, and that is what has held her back as the women of her generation — Azarenka, Radwanska and Caroline Wozniacki — have passed her by to be top-10 staples.
“So many years that everybody kept telling me, You should be top 10; why are you not top 10,” Cibulkova said. “I’m just not.”
The reality is that on an off day she can pound the ball everywhere but in. Last January, a 6-0, 6-0 loss to Radwanska in the Sydney International final left her crushed and in tears. A year later, she lost only three games to the Pole in the semifinals here. That’s the range of what she can do on a tennis court.
“I’m playing great,” Cibulkova said. “I’m playing really, really well, giving 100 percent of what I’m capable to do on the court in the match. That’s the most important thing.”
The biggest question is how both women will deal with the nerves. This is Li’s third Australian Open final in the last four years and she knows better than most what to expect on Saturday. But this will be the first time she’s the heavy favorite. (Li is 4-0 against Cibulkova, including a straight-set hard-court victory at the 2013 Rogers Cup in August.) Nerves can be debilitating for the Slovakian, but apart from nearly letting a 5-0 second-set lead slip away against Sharapova, she’s handled herself with poise.
“She’s been in the finals of Grand Slam many times.” Cibulkova said. “She already won a Grand Slam, so she knows how it is. I’m playing finals, so 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.”
Prediction: Li in two sets.