Playing her third Australian Open final in four years, Li Na was struggling.
She was the heavy favourite against the pugnacious Dominika Cibulkova but was mired in a tense, scratchy opening set, during which she committed 25 unforced errors – 16 from her forehand alone.
But once she won it, 7-3 in a tiebreak after 70 searching minutes, she relaxed, her game flowed, and she was unstoppable.
The Chinese superstar stormed to a 7-6(3) 6-0 victory over the Slovak to earn her second Grand Slam title, and first at Melbourne Park.
Wildly popular in Australia, the Rod Laver Arena crowd roared as Li finally broke through at her most productive and successful Slam.
“I make it. Not like last two times, always feeling one more step. But this time I really, so proud myself,” she said in her press conference, after her hilarious trophy presentation speech.
“Maybe you guys didn’t know how hard I was working mentally to make this one.”
AO love affair
Those “last two times” were appearances in the AO 2011 and 2013 finals, both of which she lost in three sets.
But it was even earlier, in 2010, when she showed how beautifully her game translated to the blue hard courts under the Australian summer sun. That year, Li upset top-10 opponents Caroline Wozniacki and Venus Williams to reach her first Grand Slam semifinal, where it took eventual champion Serena Williams to stop her in two tiebreaks.
A year later, she faced Wozniacki again, but this time looked finished in the semifinals when the world No.1 earned a match point on serve at 6-3, 5-4, 40-30.
Again, she relaxed, her game flowed, and she was unstoppable.
That stunning come-from-behind victory made her the first ever Chinese Grand Slam singles finalist, and it was the birth of Li Na-as-Australian-favourite, thanks to a now-iconic post-match interview.
She ultimately lost the 2011 final to Kim Clijsters, but departed the tournament buoyantly.
“After the match, back to the locker room, I make joke, tennis should only play one set,” she laughed after the 3-6 6-3 6-3 defeat. “I mean, of course, take positives. I think I play great tennis. She play better than me.”
Li was less upbeat when she lost in the final two years later.
She was brilliant in the six matches preceding it, not dropping a set and dismissing Agnieszka Radwanska and Maria Sharapova in the quarters and semis respectively.
And she led Victoria Azarenka by a set, before the Belarusian reeled her in during an emotional, dramatic three-set thriller.
Li required separate medical timeouts after twice falling heavily mid-point; the second of those produced another amusing moment in her burgeoning humour-suite.
But ultimately, she was frustrated at letting slip another opportunity.
“I wish I can win the title because this my favorite Grand Slam. But the second time I was in the final, and twice I was lost the match,” she said.
“So of course I was feeling a little bit sad.”
Third time lucky
That sadness turned to tension at Australian Open 2014, when Li found herself staring down match point in the third round and on the brink of departure.
But despite Lucie Safarova’s inspired play and the searing conditions at (then) Hisense Arena, the fourth seed rebounded to win 1-6 7-6(2) 6-3.
That scare – Safarova went for a winner on her match point, narrowly missing the line – and subsequent survival seemed to loosen her up; Li beat Ekaterina Makarova 6-2 6-0, Flavia Pennetta 6-2 6-2 and Eugenie Bouchard 6-2 6-4 in her next three matches.
Back in another final at Melbourne Park, Li faced Grand Slam final debutant Cibulkova.
This time, there was no momentum swing away from her after she pocketed that first set.
It was Li’s last ever Australian Open appearance; she retired in September that year aged 32.
Talk about departing on a high.
Source: Matt Trollope