MELBOURNE - China's Li Na stormed to her second Grand Slam title on Saturday, battling past underdog Dominika Cibulkova to win the Australian Open and give another huge boost to Asian tennis. The 31-year-old fourth seed's 7-6 (7/3), 6-0 win crowned her the champion on her third attempt after losing the 2011 and 2013 finals, adding to the French Open title she won three years ago.
In doing so, she became the oldest winner of the women's title, surpassing Margaret Court who was 30 when she became champion in 1973. The Chinese star also joins an exclusive list of just seven other players to win a Grand Slam at 30-plus, with her name now in the history books alongside greats such as Martina Navratilova, Billie Jean King, Chris Evert and Serena Williams.
"I finally got here," she said after Evert awarded her the trophy, as she praised her husband Jiang Shan and coach Carlos Rodriguez. "Thanks Carlos. He always believed that I could do well." The win pushes her one place higher in the world rankings to three, just 11 points adrift of Victoria Azarenka in second behind Serena Williams.
It was a gutsy effort by the Chinese star, who overcame the pressure of having lost twice before while bearing the weight of expectation from her homeland of 1.3 billion people. Li's 2011 French Open victory, the first Grand Slam win by an Asian player, dramatically raised the profile of tennis in China and she has become the figurehead for a push into Asia by women's tennis.
While the diminutive Cibulkova, nicknamed the "pocket rocket" has been in the best form of her life, Li was the favourite and used her experience to take out the Slovak after a tight first set lasting 70 minutes. "This has been a fantastic two weeks of my life and I think I'm going to cry," said a tearful Cibulkova, 24, the first person from her country to make a Grand Slam final.
Li got off to the best possible start, going 1-0 up on the Cibulkova serve when the Slovak gifted her the game with a double-fault on a second break point. The Chinese star comfortably, with the 24-year-old Slovak struggling to produce any decisive returns as her shots repeatedly failed to find their mark.
But she crucially came through the third game, fighting off two break points, one with a lovely passing shot, to stay in touch at 1-2. Li held in the next as she dictated the rallies, but her first serve was becoming a serious problem. After three service games she had only got 13 percent of first serves in and was seen looking at her husband in the crowd while pointing to her racquet.
This opened door for Cibulkova, with two Li double-faults allowing her to break back for 3-3. A decisive service game then put the Slovak in front for the first time as the momentum began swinging in her favour. But Li soon ironed out her problems and it went with serve till 5-5 when she pounced, stroking a sumptuous cross-court backhand for break point. A Cibulkova backhand into the net put Li 6-5 up and serving for the set. But Li was unable to ram home the advantage with the Slovak breaking back to force a tiebreak, in which Li finally prevailed with some scintillating winners. She kept up the pressure, holding serve in the second set then breaking Cibulkova, who pushed a forehand wide, to take a firm grip on the final.
Li raced to a 3-0 lead then broke again as Cibulkova ran out of steam. She won on the Cibulkova serve when the Slovak sent a forehand long, raising her arms in celebration before climbing into the stands to greet husband Jiang and coach Rodriguez. The victory helps Li make up for the misery of losing the final twice before when she was a set up against both Kim Clijsters in 2011 and Victoria Azarenka last year.