THIRD time lucky! While China's Li Na doesn't believe that number brings good fortune, it delivered her first Australian Open crown. |
Li erased memories of those final losses in 2011 and last year to sweep aside gallant little Slovak Dominika Cibulkova 7-6 (7-3) 6-0 in 97 entertaining minutes.
At 31, she's the oldest Australian women's singles champion since Margaret Court won at 30 in 1973.
It wasn't achieved without a fight either, the popular Li needed to work for 70 anxious minutes to grab the decisive opening set in a tiebreak.
Heck, many women's finals haven't even lasted that long, let alone the first set of what was a pulsating baseline battle.
But, with that set in the bag, it was as if a giant weight had been lifted from the fourth seed's shoulders. It freed her up to wield those rapier ground strokes to ground Cibulkova into the blue hardcourt.
"Finally I got her,'' Li said before
paying tribute to the 24th ranked Slovak's brave run at a debut grand slam title for her nation.
"This is my favourite grand slam (championship) and I'm so happy I've won the title here.''
Li applied the subtle pressure from the moment she won the toss and asked Cibulkova to serve first to start the match.
A nervous Cibulkova threw in not one, but two double faults to drop serve in that opening game and Li was quickly out to a 2-0 lead.
But the little Slovak didn't take long to reveal her trademark fighting spirit.
She fought off two break points in the third game to finally get on the board. A shout and fist pump in the direction of her entourage announced she was in the battle.
The contest was littered with heavy-hitting baseline duels that tested the patience and will of both players.
Just when it seemed Li was in control, she also twice double faulted to give up a service break in the sixth game.
Cibulkova continued to live dangerously on her serve, staving off another break point in the ninth game and Li answered with the first ace of the match to level at 5-5.
Another double fault put the Slovak under pressure and a Li crosscourt winner set up another break opportunity.
When a deep Li return forced Cibulkova to dump a backhand into the net, the favourite stepped up to serve for the set.
Li blew a set point when a backhand down the line just missed wide. And Cibulkova pounced with a forehand winner and another deep return to force an error for another break back to level at 6-6.
The Chinese player's big match experience shone through at she grabbed the early lead, changed ends with a commanding 5-1 lead and wrapped up the crucial tiebreak 7-3.
She had snared a significant scoreboard and psychological advantage after 70 entertaining minutes.
Serving first in the second set, Li poured on the pressure, smashing aside the Cibulkova serve again and surge to a 3-0 lead.
Li Na of China celebrates winning the first set against Dominika Cibulkova. She took it in a tiebreak. Source: AFP
The fourth seed's heavy and deep ground strokes and returns began to overwhelm her gallant little foe.
Another power-laden backhand crosscourt into the corner broke Cibulkova's serve and heart to hand Li a 4-0 lead and closing in for the kill.
While Cibulkova continued to scurry around the court and attempt to run down every ball, the controlling Chinese player had found her range with the topspin ground strokes to seize the initiative.
Nothing could deny Li the title now and she bullied the failing Cibulkova serve again as the Slovak flew a forehand over the baseline to give up the fight.
That second set disappeared in just 27 minutes and with it any hope of Slovak grand slam glory.