In one of her promotional pieces for television, Li Na says of life, "You have to challenge it every second." That sounds exhausting, but maybe it explains why the 31-year-old international star has brought her best tennis to what is generally considered the last stage of a player's career. Last night, Li won the Australian Open, after achieving runner-up status in both 2011 and 2013. She defeated Dominika Cibulkova 7-6, 6-0 and received her trophy from the great Chris Evert in what was an understated celebration of a significant victory.
It's easy to say "the draw opened up when Serena Williams was upset," or "the draw opened up when defending champion Victoria Azarenka was upset." It's easy to point out that Li had a softer draw than she might have, but in a major tournament, the numbers don't always mean that much. Li had to beat the dangerous Ekaterina Makarova, the Comeback Queen Flavia Pennetta, and the very upwardly mobile Genie Bouchard. And she had to make sure she didn't beat herself, which has been a problem for her in the past.
"Special," she told the crowd after her quarterfinal match when asked about her preparation and planning this year. "Not falling down." Exactly. Last year, Li--who looked ripe to upset Azarenka--fell down twice, turning her ankle and cracking her head. The falls did her in. In 2011, she went on a mental vacation in the middle of a very close final against Kim Clijsters. She went on to win the French Open that year, but until now, that was her only major championship.
Li looked to Carlos Rodriguez, former coach of Justine Henin, for guidance. In the early part of her career, Henin choked a lot of matches away, and she refused to move forward toward the net. Now she's remembered for her mental toughness and her volleys. Rodriguez has helped Li, also, to steady herself mentally, and she has become a more aggressive player under his tutelage. And while she had her wobbles in this Australian Open--including being a match point down to Lucie Safarova in the third round (Li is only the fourth player in the Open Era to win in Melbourne after being down a match point)--Li demonstrated something important: An athlete, even a top athlete, and even an "older" athlete, can change and fulfill more of her potential.
But this final wasn't just about Li Na. Dominika Cibulkova, the shortest woman on a tour that includes the likes of Venus Williams and Maria Sharapova, also has a history of letting down mentally when she is ahead, not to mention a long history of thigh and hip strains. But with a new training regimen and a new attitude, the Slovakian pocket rocket shot through the draw from hell in Melbourne. As I mentioned before, she did have some luck: Both the very talented Simona Halep and shot-maker supreme Aga Radwanska folded in the latter stages of the tournament--the former because of nerves, and the latter because of exhaustion, probably both mental and physical.
Cibulkova enthusiastically took advantage of her opponents' weaknesses and played dynamic, thoughtful tennis throughout the event. Her run was superb. Sometimes, though, no matter how hard we are running, we still come up against the Great Wall of China.
Li broke Cibulkova right away in the first set when the Slovakian player double-faulted twice. Li hen held, but it wasn't that easy a hold--an early sign that Li, too, was feeling the enormity of the occasion. Down a break at 0-2, Cibulkova hit her first winner and the crowd cheered enthusiastically. She held for 1-2.
Li, already inflicting pain with her backhand, held for 3-1. Then things turned a bit; Cibulkova held and then broke Li when the 4th seed double-faulted on break point. Li then complained about the string tension of her rackets, and several of them (Li Na 2? Li Na 3?) were taken to be restrung. By this time, with the break in hand, Cibulkova was hitting with the kind of authority that got her to the final. She held for 4-3.
Li held too, but again, it wasn't easy for her because her first serve was off. When Cibulkova served at 4-all, she responded to Li's first return with a very low, well-struck drop shot. But Li got to it and turned it into a winner. Cibulkova went on to earn three game points, but because of double-faulting, she suddenly found herself fighting off a break point. She held, however, when Li hit a return long.
The 4th seed hit her first ace to open the next game. At this point, both players were taking the ball off the ground really quickly and the rallies were getting longer. Li held, and in the next game, Cibulkova committed her sixth double fault. With two break point in front of her, Li cracked a stunning backhand crosscourt return off of her opponent's very well struck forehand down the line. Li broke for 6-5. She then began having trouble with her ball toss, and she flubbed a volley to down break point. Li saved that break point with her forehand, but then got broken on the next break point.
The tiebreak was a microcosm of the first set. Li quickly went up 5-1, but then the 20th seed made two points, one with a beautifully angled crosscourt backhand net-skimmer. That was as far as she could go, however, and Li won the tiebreak 7-3.
The second set might just as well be called The Li Na Show. All the nerves shaken off, the Chinese star stepped onto the court and held and broke in a businesslike manner. She hit her second ace to go up a game point in the next game, but Cibulkova saved that game point. Never mind. Li let loose with her backhand again, and it was 3-0.
At this point, Li was unstoppable. She hit yet another wonderfully angled crosscourt backhand to break Cibulkova and go up 4-0, then held for 5-0. Cibulkova saved one match point on her own serve, but Li won the 2014 championship on her next break point.
Early in her career, Li left the tour and considered herself retired. But she returned, and when she did, she told the Chinese Tennis Federation that she would no longer give them 65% of her earnings, and that she wanted to choose her own coaches. The Federation backed down, and Chinese tennis was changed forever. Li was the first Chinese player to ever reach the quarterfinals of a major (2006 Wimbledon), and she and Zheng Jie became the first Chinese players to ever reach the semifinals of a major (2010 Australian Open). In 2011, Li came seemingly out of nowhere (she said that clay was her worst surface) and won the French Open.
There have been other Chinese milestones. Li Ting and Sun Tiantian won the gold medal in women's doubles at the 2004 Olympic Games, and Zheng Jie and Yan Zi won the doubles championships at both the Australian Open and Wimbledon in 2006.
But it is the woman known in her country simply as Big Sister Na who has become the face of Chinese tennis and the face of Asian tennis. The WTA tour now has a healthy and growing partnership with Asia, and no one doubts that the presence of Li Na has been the catalyst for that growth.
A maverick, an international star and an elite athlete, Li is perhaps most beloved because of her delicious sense of humor. I remember when she could speak very little English, and the only answers she gave in English at press conferences were "yes" and "no." Now she she cracks up the entire world on a regular basis with one-liners that zing with the force of her backhand. It's not a stretch to say that we cheer for her not only because of her superb tennis, but because we so eagerly want another interview from her. Fortunately, we'll get to hear a lot more of them as Li, the world's new number 2 player, once again bears the title of "champion."