Li makes it third time lucky and then chooses to deliver different punchline

Li collected her second Grand Slam singles trophy beating Dominika Cibulkova

Li Na of China celebrates after defeating Dominika Cibulkova of Slovakia to win the  Australian Open  in Melbourne.

Li Na of China celebrates after defeating Dominika Cibulkova of Slovakia to win the Australian Open in Melbourne.

 


In the immediate aftermath of most Grand Slam championships, the winners spout the usual clichés, shed a few tears and thank everyone they ever met and some people they do not know. There must be a manual for such occasions: thank, cry, cliché, repeat.

Then there is Li Na and the acceptance speech that came after her Australian Open women’s singles title, which she captured on Saturday by defeating Dominika Cibulkova, 7-6 (3), 6-0. Her speech was basically the opposite of that.

To her agent, Max Eisenbud, Li said, “Make me rich.” To her husband, Jiang Shan, she said thank you in the form of a roast. She appreciated his dedication as her hitting partner, Li said, and the way he fixed her drinks and fixed her rackets. She noted his fame in China for that role. She ended by reminding him he was “so lucky to find me.” She said this on international television

Perhaps she had a point. In victory, Li collected her second Grand Slam singles trophy; raised her standing as the most accomplished Chinese tennis player; and closed the gap on the number two ranking, held by Victoria Azarenka, to 11 points. She also collected €1.6 million in prize money.

Mr Li Na, hitting partner, perpetual punch line, sounded like a pretty sweet gig. Li (31) entered her news conference to a round of applause from reporters. She was oddly toasted with Champagne and offered a “massive congratulations,” and she was asked when she realised she was funny. An official carried in her shiny silver trophy, which he handled with gloves. Someone did mention her husband, and asked whether he ever took offence. “If he say, ‘Enough,’ I think I would do worse,” she said.

Li played 13 sets before the final and won 12, and eventually she became the favorite – normally a good sign, but in this tournament, perhaps not. Still, Li could not shake what happened in the 2013 final against Azarenka, in which Li twice tumbled to the ground, hitting her head on the court once. Li brought up those stumbles repeatedly. In 2013, as in 2011, she had won the first set, stood one set from the trophy and faltered. The falls added embarrassment to the defeats. Li’s final opponent this time, Cibulkova, stood 5ft 3in. Had she won, she would have tied two others for the title of shortest women’s Grand Slam champion.

Li struggled in the first set, first with her first serve, then with her forehand. A 3-1 lead turned into a 4-3 deficit, and when Cibulkova fought off a set point down, 6-5, it seemed fair to wonder whether Li would collapse. Instead, she managed to win the tiebreaker, despite 25 first-set errors and the fact that only half of her first serves landed in. The second set took only slightly longer than a trip to the concession stand.

Found her rhythm
Li found her rhythm, and as she landed shots with greater regularity, she took more chances. As she took more chances, she seized control. “She was more relaxed, and she was going for her shots,” Cibulkova said. “She was just really, really playing well.”

For all the talk this Open of Roger Federer’s switch to a larger racket frame, Cibulkova also arrived here with a new stick. Hunter Hines, the director of marketing and product development at Dunlop, said Cibulkova tested her new racket in December and decided to make the switch.

The new frame, slightly heavier and slightly longer, and with about a 14 per cent rounder racket head, played into Cibulkova’s strengths. It gave her more power and spin.

Now, Li is a two-time Grand Slam winner, with this trophy and her triumph at the French Open in 2011. This will only bolster her value as a brand in the world’s most populated country, her status as an icon, her résumé for potential Hall of Fame consideration.

Someone asked what the Chinese characters on her shirt meant. The answer came back, and there was no punch line, only truth. It read: My heart has no limits.