MELBOURNE, Australia — Seven months after giving retirement serious thought, Li Na made it third time lucky in an Australian Open final with a 7-6 (3), 6-0 win over Dominika Cibulkova to become the oldest women's champion here in the Open era.
Li, who turns 32 next month, lost finals to Kim Clijsters in 2011 and to Victoria Azarenka last year. In between, she won the 2011 French Open in one of the many firsts she's established for Chinese tennis.
Widely popular at Melbourne Park for her funny post-match interviews and wise cracks about her husband and his snoring, Li didn't disappoint the Rod Laver Crowd in her first victory speech.
She first thanked her agent, Max, “for making me rich,” her coach Carlos Rodriguez and then her husband, former coach and constant traveling companion, Shan Jiang.
She told him he was “even famous in China.”
“So thanks for him give up everything just traveling with me to be my hitting partner, fix the drinks, fix the racket. So thanks a lot, you are a nice guy,” she said, pausing for the laughter. “Also you are so lucky, find me.”
In both her previous finals at Melbourne Park, Li won the first set but went down in three. Against Azarenka last year, she stumbled and twisted her ankle, and needed a medical timeout in the third set after hitting her head on the court.
She had no such trouble against No. 20-seeded Cibulkova on Saturday night, racing through the second set in 27 minutes after taking the first in a tiebreaker.
Li's supporters were everywhere in the crowd, some with Chinese flags painted on their faces, others holding Chinese flags or giant signs painted with Chinese characters.
Her fans got her through the nervous first set, chanting, “Li Na, Let's Go,” in Mandarin during every changeover.
Li opened the final by breaking Cibulkova, holding, then getting a breakpoint chance in the third game. But Cibulkova held, and then broke back in the sixth game thanks to Li's consecutive double-faults. Li broke in the 11th game and had a set point serving for the set in the 12th, but lost three straight points to ensure it went to the tiebreaker.
As Li began her roll in the second set, someone yelled — before Cibulkova served — “C'mon Li Na, bagel her!”
A half hour later she was holding up both thumbs to the crowd, and holding back tears as she hugged her Slovakian rival at the net. She went immediately to the side of the court to shake hands with her coach Rodriguez.
The diminutive Cibulkova, one of the shortest players ever to reach a Grand Slam final at 1.61-meters (5-foot-3), had four wins over Top 20 players on her way to the final, including a fourth-round upset of third-seeded Maria Sharapova and a straight-sets semifinal trouncing of No. 5 Agnieszka Radwanska.
She had to pull the microphone down closer to her before her post-match speech.
“These were just fantastic two weeks of my life,” she said, pausing to laugh, and then cry. “Hello to everybody in Slovakia. This means a lot for our country and I'm happy I can be the one here for Slovakia.”
No. 4-ranked Li, who reportedly has four-times more followers on her Chinese social networking site than there are people in Slovakia, had a good run through the tournament as other star players like Serena Williams, Sharapova and Azarenka tumbled out by the quarterfinals.
She opened with wins over the two youngest players in the tournament, then saved a match point in her third-round win over Lucie Safarova. In the semifinals, she held off 19-year-old Canadian Eugenie Bouchard, and never had to face a player ranked in the top 20 en route to the final.
Li said it didn't matter how she got there, only that she'd finally broken through to win the title at her favorite major.
Rodriguez had to talk Li into playing Wimbledon after she told him she wanted to retire in the wake of the criticism that followed her early exit at the last French Open. He encouraged her to just to play and see how she went at the All England club before making such a big career decision. She responded by reaching the quarterfinals at Wimbledon, the semifinals at the U.S. Open and now breaking her drought in Australia.
On Saturday, she paid tribute to his calm, composed approach and support.
“Before the match he was telling me to relax, just think it's a match, don't think it's a final,” she recounted, admitting that she'd even taken time out for a short afternoon sleep to help with nerves. “When he was coaching me, he always say 'believe in yourself.' He always believed in me, I never believed in myself. That was my problem.”
Now she's already promising to come back and defend her Australian title.
“Finally I got her,” Li said as she put a hand on the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup for the first time. “Last two times was very close.”