An unforeseen women’s final has been set for the 2014 Australian Open. World No. 4 Li Na will seek her second Grand Slam title on Saturday night, when she faces first time finalist Dominika Cibulkova in the Melbourne final. This marks the fifth time these two athletes meet on the professional tour. The Na Li vs Cibulkova Head to Head stands at 4-0.
The Chinese No. 1 has has a fantastic run in Melbourne over the past two weeks, earning victories against Safarova, Makarova, Pennetta and Canadian darling Eugenie Bouchard in the semi-finals, amongst others. She only dropped one set in six matches en route to the final, against Safarova in the third round, where she needed to save a match point before recovering to win the match. She has been on a dominant streak ever since, losing a total of twelve games in her following three matches.
The 31-year-old has worked incredibly hard to remain this competitive amongst the top 10 players. It was earlier reported that she had changed the grip on her serve and backhand to get more accuracy when she’s under pressure – a tactic that will be very useful against Cibulkova, who enjoys pressuring opponents. She is also attempting to play a much more serve and volley oriented approach, as she comes to the net with more frequency on her serve.
This is not the first time Li has reached this stage of the tournament in Melbourne. This marks her third final since 2011, when she lost to Kim Clijsters, and last year, when she lost to Victoria Azarenka. This is arguably her best chance to finally win that elusive Grand Slam title in Australia.
“It’s my third time in the final here, so I think I’m getting pretty close to the trophy,” Li said. “At least I’ll try not to fall down this time, because last year in the final I thought I was playing well but I can only say I was unlucky because I was falling down twice. This time I’ll try to enjoy it and stay healthy.”
The 20th seed, Dominika Cibulkova, is the first Slovakian woman to play in a Grand Slam final. Her path to her first major final was not a simple one, as she defeated Spain’s Carla Suarez Navarro, toppled returning world No. 3 Maria Sharapova, and followed it up with back-to-back victories over Simona Halep and world No. 5 Agnieszka Radwanska to reach the tournament final. While her opposition was certainly amongst the elite competitors on the WTA tour, her final opponent, Li Na, is arguably the toughest obstacle in her path.
Cibulkova takes great pride in her confidence and self-belief, particularly following her close friend Marion Bartoli’s Wimbledon victory last year.
“She was a big inspiration,” Cibulkova said. “We are very close friends, she’s one of my best friends, and I knew she was working so hard for it, and she really was the one who deserved it so much.
“When she won Wimbledon I knew everything is possible.”
The head-to-head record between the two competitors stands at 4-0, favouring Li Na. Cibulkova has only ever taken the Chinese star to a third set one one previous occasion, back in 2010. Where Cibulkova was able to dominate her previous opponents using her power and aggressiveness, that approach will certainly play in Li’s game, as she is more than equipped to handle her power and will likely reply with incredible shotmaking. Her improved grip and attacking style should be enough to foil the Slovakian’s plans for her first ever Grand Slam title.
Prediction: Li Na in Three Sets