No matter who wins the women's final, the Australian Open will soon have a brand new women's champion--one who has never before raised the trophy. Li Na has come close twice, losing finals to Kim Clijsters and Victoria Azarenka. In both of those matches, she was a strong contender. Against Clijsters, the Chinese star faltered mentally, and against Azarenka, she literally faltered, falling down twice and injuring both her ankle and her head.
Theoretically, all Li has to do is keep her head together and her feet on the court in order to finally become the champion of the event that comes closest to being her "home" major. In reality, however, she has to do a little bit more. Dominika Cibulkova--who has a history of losing big matches in which she has the lead-appears to have changed her ways. The strong-cored, high-energy Slovak took out four seeded players, including a former Australian Open champion, last year's hottest player, and the woman who upset the defending champion. She is filled with confidence.
This is going to be a hitting contest, for sure. Both players are very strong from the baseline, and Li sports a crosscourt backhand that can be scary. Her forehand has improved quite a bit under the guidance of coach Carlos Rodriguez, so--assuming she keeps her head together--she can take it to Cibulkova from both sides of the court. Historically, neither player is that fond of coming forward, but I think that each knows that she has to, and each has done so in this event. Neither likes to be pushed around, so getting in a good first serve and controlling the point will be crucial. If it comes down to defense, however, Cibulkova won't be afraid to engage her opponent in long, tiring rallies.
Both players are very fit, and we might see some long games, or even long sets. Li has won all for of the matches they've played against each other, including their only hard court match last year in Toronto. Because of her record against Cibulkova and because of her history in Melbourne, Li will most certainly be feeling a great amount of pressure. That kind of pressure can make just about any player vulnerable, and Li is no stranger to feelings of vulnerability. She will have to shut out any memory of Clijsters, any memory of cracking her head on the court, and any of the sometimes over-enthusiastic carrying on of her fans.
Paths to the final:
round 1--def. Ana Konjuh
round 2--def. Belinda Bencic
round 3--def. Lucie Safarova (26)
round of 16--def. Ekaterina Makarova (22)
quarterfinals--def. Flavia Pennetta (28)
semifinals--def. Eugenie Bouchard (30)
round 1--def. Francesca Schiavone
round 2--def. Stefanie Voegele
round 3--def. Carla Suarez Navarro (16)
round of 16--def. Maria Sharapova (3)
quarterfinals--def. Simona Halep (11)
semifinals--def. Agnieszka Radwanska (5)