Li Na to face Dominika Cibulkova in final
Chinese player hoping that third time is a charm in the Australian Open decider on Saturday
Dominika Cibulkova of Slovakia celebrates after winning her semi final match against Agnieszka Radwanska (Poland) at the Australian Open Grand Slam tennis tournament in Melbourne. Photograph: MAST IRHAM/EPA
Li Na will hope to keep her head in check and feet on the ground during her third Australian Open final after her coach Carlos Rodriguez helped calm her for a thumping victory over teenager Eugenie Bouchar.
Runner-up last year and in 2011, the battle-hardened Chinese smashed the Canadian sensation 6-2 6-4 in a sun-drenched Rod Laver Arena and will battle Slovakia’s Dominika Cibulkova, the 20th seed, for the trophy.
Of all her three runs to the decider, the 2011 French Open champion has her best chance of casting off her ‘one-slam wonder’ status at the ripe age of 31.
First-time nerves cost her dearly when she was overhauled by Belgian Kim Clijsters in 2011, and last year it was two unlucky tumbles on the hardcourt against Victoria Azarenka that took their toll on Asia’s first grand slam singles winner.
“I think it’s the third time, so pretty close to the trophy,” said Li, who rolled her ankle against Azarenka and blacked out for a moment when she thumped her head in the second fall last year.
“At least I’ll try to not fall down this time, because last year in the final I think I played well but I only can say I was unlucky because of falling down twice,” she told reporters.
The only slip-up Li had against the highly-fancied Bouchard was on serve in the second set when she was broken early to fall behind 2-0.
The more emotional Li of yesteryear might have promptly fallen into a deep hole, but instead she rattled off three straight games and marched to a confidence-building win in under 90 minutes.
Since taking on Rodriguez, the former mentor to Belgian great Justine Henin, Li has made the quarter-finals or better of four of the last five grand slams and the Argentine has earned his money in this tournament.
Rodriguez gave the Chinese a stern lecture about her goals following her tight third-round win over Lucie Safarova in which she played erratically and was saved by a ‘Hawk-eye’ review for a close line call on match-point.
Li responded by hammering her next two opponents in straight sets.
Suffering a bout of nerves when preparing for the Bouchard semi-final, Rodriguez rode to the rescue again.
“When I was talking to him last night, I think he saw something, so he was asking how I feel. I say, ‘nervous’. He says, ‘Congratulations. At least you’re normal. If you cannot feel anything, I worry. Let’s talk right now.
“’Just don’t think too much. Just try to play tennis. You have to understand or know why you are here, what you have to do.
“After the talk, I felt my mind open and was feeling better. I don’t have to hold pressure only by myself.”
With that in mind, Li bashed three backhand winners to break Bouchard in the first game and lost only three points to the shell-shocked Canadian on the way to a 5-0 lead.
Bouchard dug in to break Li early in the second set, but was quickly overhauled as the hard-hitting Chinese rollicked to victory with 35 winners.
After her earlier win over Safarova, Li remarked that only “five centimetres” and the Hawk-eye review separated her from an early trip to the airport. “I will send her a smile,” Li said of the unlucky Czech on Thursday. “It’s all I can do.”
Meanwhile Cibulkova knows anything is possible after watching best friend Marion Bartoli win Wimbledon.
The 5ft 3in Slovakian had only previously reached one slam semi-final, at the French Open in 2009, and did not make it past the third round at any of the four tournaments last season.
While Bartoli enjoyed good fortune with her draw at Wimbledon last year before beating Sabine Lisicki in the final, Cibulkova has had no such luck.
Her last four matches have all been against higher-ranked players, and on Thursday fifth seed Agnieszka Radwanska joined Maria Sharapova, Carla Suarez Navarro and Simona Halep in falling to Cibulkova.
Bartoli is in Melbourne and was able to congratulate her friend, with Cibulkova saying: “Straight after my semi-final she came into the gym to me. She hugged me. We were both crying. She was so happy for me.
“She was a big inspiration. When she won Wimbledon, we are very close friends, so I knew she was working so hard for it, so she was the one who deserved it so much. When she won it, I knew everything is possible.”
Aside from her fourth-round win over Sharapova, Cibulkova has not dropped a set all tournament and she was far too good for Radwanska, a player who she had lost 6-0 6-0 against in Sydney last year.
It took the world number 24 only an hour and 10 minutes to blast her way to a 6-1 6-2 victory, with 21 winners.
She said: “I was just trying to focus on my game. I wanted to enjoy it. Of course it was not easy when I was up in the second set. The thought started to come that I could win. I was 100 per cent ready for it and I was just doing what I had to do. That’s why I won.
“I think I will say this today many times, it’s like a dream. It’s something so unbelievable.”
Radwanska had produced a stunning display to defeat defending champion Victoria Azarenka in the quarter-finals but that took its toll with no day off in between the matches.
She said: “I I felt like I was in slow motion. I had a couple of tough matches, especially yesterday. I think I was not fresh enough. I was late for pretty much every ball. I could really feel that it was not my day.”
Radwanska’s only grand slam final came at Wimbledon in 2012, when she lost to Serena Williams, while she was also the favourite to reach the final at SW19 last year but went down to Lisicki in the semi-finals.
She said: “It’s very disappointing, especially that I didn’t play a top-five player. Semi-finals of a grand slam is still a good result. But of course you want even more.”