MELBOURNE: Li Na has bitter experience of losing Australian Open finals and she is fired up to go one better against Dominika Cibulkova on Saturday — but the Chinese trailblazer is taking nothing for granted.
While the world number four is the clear favourite to win a second Grand Slam crown against the Slovak, courtesy of being 20 places higher in the rankings, she knows anything can happen on the day.
“It is the third time, so pretty close to the trophy,” Li said, having made the final twice before, in 2011 and 2013, and lost after leading each time.
“I’ve got more experience. The final is final, but it’s still just one match,” she added.
“At least me and Dominika, it’s 50/50. Everyone has a chance to win the title. You come to the court, just play, don’t think too much.”
Li was a set up before losing to Kim Clijsters in 2011, and last year she was also ahead against Victoria Azarenka but rolled her ankle twice, banging her head hard on the court the second time.
In Cibulkova, nicknamed the “pocket rocket”, she comes up against a player who has used her power off the ground and relentless running to scurry through the draw, dropping just one set.
En route she has accounted for the third, fifth, and 11th seeds in Maria Sharapova, Agnieszka Radwanksa and Simona Halep. In contrast, Li has had a relatively easy run, meeting two qualifiers and no one seeded better than 22.
“I think she has pretty fast legs on the court, she’s also a hitter,” Li of the Slovak, who combines bundles of energy with sumptuous groundstrokes.
“We play pretty similar so it will be a tough match, another challenge.”
Li, 31, takes far more experience into the match, having made the Melbourne Park final in three of the past four years, while Cibulkova, 24, is in her first Grand Slam decider.
The Chinese star is also a crowd favourite due to her dogged tennis and impish humour. She rose to stardom by winning the 2011 French Open, becoming Asia’s first Grand Slam singles champion.
Twentieth seed Cibulkova is also aiming to write her name in the history books as the first Slovak Grand Slam singles winner, and said for her it was about having belief that she can go all the way.
“You need to be 100 percent. You need to be 100 percent sure you can do it. Yes, I am (sure). Even if I turns out a different way, now I know I can do it,” she said.
“If I think of it like that, it’s a final, it’s big pressure. I want to enjoy it on the court. I don’t want to suffer on the court, that’s what I want to do.”
She added: “It’s going to be the final of the Grand Slam, so it’s going to be a pretty big match. In the end of a Grand Slam, everything counts. So I think it’s going to be a fight for every ball.”
Cibulkova, at five feet three inches (1.61m) the smallest player in the top 50, will need to overcome nerves in her first major final, as well being face-to-face with a player she has admired for years.
She acknowledged the challenge was daunting, but also exciting.
“Li is a great player, someone I really looked up to when I was a junior and I just want to go out there and enjoy it,” she said of the Chinese icon, who has won all four of their previous meetings stretching back to 2008.