Hands up if you had Na Li and Dominika Cibulkova making the Australian Open. If your hands are up, I don’t believe you! This women’s draw has seen so many surprises this year, most of them in the last couple of days with Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova falling in the 4th round and Victoria Azarenka exiting at the quarter-final stage. Here are my thoughts about Saturday’s final, starting at 7.30pm local time (8:30am UK time).
Na Li and Dominika Cibulkova have powered their way through the draw with similar results having each played one three set encounter, which for both players, proved to be their most monumental match of the tournament. The turning point for Li came in the third round when she went up against Lucie Safarova. The Czech number 26 seed took advantage of an error-strewn performance from Li as served for the match at 6-1 5-3 and had a match point at 6-1 6-5. Safarova hit a forehand just a few centimetres wide on match point and Li clung on, winning through, 1-6 7-6(2) 6-3. Since that match, Li has powered into the final with straight set wins over Ekaterina Makarova (6-2 6-0, R4), Flavia Pennetta (6-2 6-2, QF) and Eugenie Bouchard (6-2 6-4, SF). Li took just 14 minutes to go up 5-0 against Bouchard before the Canadian restored some kind of order winning six games. The Chinese star has been in imperious form taking aside that match with Safarova and will be the favourite to claim the title on the Saturday.
I was searching everywhere to find a replay of the match point Safarova had. It’s here in this full replay at 1:43:20
Cibulkova’s big match came in the fourth round when she came from a set down to beat Maria Sharapova. Apart from that three setter, she has absolutely powered her way through the draw, dishing out three bagel sets and four breadstick sets. In the last two matches, she beat Simona Halep (6-3 6-0, QF) and Agnieszka Radwanska (6-1 6-2, SF) to reach her first ever Grand Slam final. The scoreline of her semi-final win over Radwanska was a real surprise. Radwanska was flat as a pancake and held up little resistance, particularly the final game, which passed by like a flash. I do think some of that came down to how well Cibulkova played. She was hitting winners from all over the court and looked confident and controlled in her hitting.
You never quite know how a player will respond to the emotions of playing their first Grand Slam final. Sabine Lisicki is the most recent example of a player who was overrawed by the situation. This match will depend on how Cibulkova copes with it all. The Slovakian powerhouse has not exactly been known for her mental fortitude. She has had some very shaky results in her career; the one that always pops into my head was the loss to Victoria Azarenka in Miami when she led 6-1 5-2 and ended up losing in three sets. She has though, looked really confident this week and key for her will be to get the numbers ticking over on her side of the scoreboard EARLY to try and quash the nerves.
The head-to-head isn’t pretty viewing for Cibulkova, who has lost all four encounters with Li winning just one set out of eight. Their most recent match-up came in Toronto last year where Cibulkova put up a solid fight in the first set, before tailing off in the second set, a match that ended 7-6(1) 6-2. In Cibulkova’s favour is that she has played two top five players this week, Sharapova and Radwanska, who she beat having negative head-to-head records.
So who is going to come out victorious? Both players have the tendencies to go walkabout, even Li as the match against Safarova proved, but I think the fact she has the experience of playing in a Grand Slam final will go heavily in her favour. I think it should be a reasonably competitive match and if Cibulkova comes out in the same manner she has played the whole tournament, then she can push Li all the way. Weighing everything up though, I believe Li is finally destined to win her first Australian Open title. Third time lucky…