Saturday, January 25, 2014

Li Na: One Night Only

As her career has shaped itself and will ultimately be remembered, Li Na is a pied piper. Not just for all the "first Chinese to..." accomplishments she's posted though the years, nor for the stand she made against her nation's tennis establishment in an attempt take her life into her own hands by keeping her prize money, picking her own coach and making her own schedule, but for also serving as the guiding light for all the upcoming tennis generations that will likely emerge on the WTA shores in waves hailing from Beijing to Wuhan and all points in between and beyond

But in her third appearance in an Australian Open final, all of that was background noise. For one night only, the story of Li was about securing her individual tennis legacy by claiming a second grand slam title to go along with the one she won in Paris three years ago. Even if by the end of the night it ended up being viewed as something of a prelude to a typically-entertaining post-match victory speech.

Standing in the way of the 31-year old Li's next date with tennis history was surprise finalist Dominika Cibulkova, 24, the first Slovak woman to reach a slam final. Seeded #20 but ranked outside the Top 20, the tour's shortest player (5-foot-3) had chopped down four Top 20 players (Li had to face none) in Melbourne, including two (Sharapova & A.Radwanska) ranked in the Top 5. Playing with a new larger racket, but with the same hard-working mindset that she's always possessed, Cibulkova's confidence looked to have reached an all-time high over the past two weeks as she'd taken out personal adversaries while dominating the final sets of nearly every match after having developed a career-long reputation as a talented player with a problem when it comes to closing out big wins.

Li's confidence has been a work in progress throughout her entire career. When Carlos Rodriguez, longtime mentor of seven-time slam champ Justine Henin, came aboard as her coach in the late summer of '12, bolstering Li's belief in herself was the biggest hurdle to overcome while reworking the veteran's game for the latter chapter of her career. When Li won a title in Cincinnati just days after hiring Rodriguez, there was hope that it was a sign that Li's mindset and, accordingly, results might eventually greatly improve at an age when players (not named Serena) have started to go in the opposite direction. But heading into this AO, the two had only teamed to win a pair of small titles in Shenzhen, though Li had played in and put up a great fight in the Aussie final last year against Victoria Azarenka. Before last year's Wimbledon, with pressure coming from the Chinese press and her results hitting a dry spell, Li had to be talked out of retiring by Rodriguez to give herself one final chance to be as good a player as she could be.

It was a close call. But Li's decision to stick around has proven to be a well-timed stroke of genius.

Her quarterfinal run at SW19 bolstered her confidence, and then the advantages of a mid-season "boot camp" to make sure Li was fit for success a the end of '13 began to be seen. She ended the year with a run to the Tour Championships final and entered this AO championship match on an eleven-match winning streak in 2014. After escaping a 3rd Round match against Lucie Safarova in Melbourne in which the Czech held a match point, going for but missing on a chance for a down-the-line winner, Li has often played like a woman on a mission, deftly utilizing her additional topspin on her groundstrokes (to make her shots more reliable in the clutch), improved serve and added aggressiveness, calmly assuming the role of "favorite" for the tournament title after all the other expected contenders fell by the wayside before Li had an opportunity to face them.

With these two players still possibly susceptible to feeling the tension of a slam final no matter their recent level-headedness, it was clear that the 1st set might prove to be vital. Early on, it was apparent that things weren't going to be quite as easy for Cibulkova as they'd been against Radwanska. Li went up 30/love on the Slovak's serve in the opening game, winning rallies and breaking her courtesy of a double-fault for 1-0. After seeing winners coming seemingly at will two days earlier, Cibulkova had a hard time finding them here. In game #3, Li held two break points, though Cibulkova -- saving the first with a forehand passing shot, her first winner of the match -- held and managed to avoid sliding so far behind that the set was a lost cause. With shades of Li's fall-heavy final of a season ao, the Slovak stumbled and nearly fell in the next game, then shot a forehand long to slip further behind at 3-1.

From there, Cibulkova started to slowly but surely pick of her level of play, while Li's began to waver.

Li's errors allowed the Slovak to go up 40/love and, despite two errors of her own, Cibulkova held for 3-2. It was an interesting point in the set, as Cibulkova was arguably fortunate to not be a double-break down, but that fact also meant that she wasn't letting Li off the hook and was instead forcing her to make the shots to stay ahead and win the set. And, suddenly, she wasn't hitting them.. On the first point in game #6, Cibulkova took to the net and put away a backhand crosscourt winner, then saw Li double-fault on back-to-back points to break herself and knot the set at 3-3.

While Li stared at her racket and then called for her husband to take a pair of rackets to be re-strung, Cibulkova began to get the better of the Chinese in rallies. A crosscourt forehand put the Slovak up 40/love, giving her eight points in the last nine, and a wide service winner gave her a hold to take the lead in the set for the first time at 4-3. Meanwhile, Li's first serve percent was ebbing below 30%. Still, she managed to hold on, winning a rally that featured several defensive saves from Cibulkova and holding for 4-4 then, after failing to convert a break point in game #9, firing an ace to hold for 5-5.

A Li return winner and Cibulkova double-fault put Li up 30/15, then she got a break point on the strength of her favorite shot sequence this entire Australian Open -- a rally that saw her move Cibulkova back and forth across the baseline, then quickly end the point with a backhand crosscourt winner. A deep return was netted by Cibulkova and Li had the chance to serve for the set at 6-5. She appeared to blink when, at 30/30, she dumped an easy open court volley into the net that would have given her a set point. Two points later, she got a SP, but missed a backhand down the line and saw Cibulkova go on to break with her very own crosscourt backhand to force a tie-break.

In the breaker, four of the first five points were won by the returner, and Li found herself with a quick 4-1 lead. At 5-1, Li stopped play to challenge a Cibulkova ball that had been called in on the baseline. If she'd gotten the call, Li would have had five set points, but when the call was proven correct it was 5-2 and Cibulkova was seemingly back in the game. But Li didn't allow the slip to become a total slide. She got to set point at 6-3, then put it away with a deep crosscourt backhand that the Slovak failed to get over the net. Although she hadn't played her best, Li had grabbed the opening set with a 7-3 TB win.

At that point, she could finally breathe.

With the 1st set in her back pocket, it was noteworthy to know that twenty-seven of the last twenty-nine grand slams had been won by the woman who claimed the 1st set in the final. That was good news for Li. But the two times that that wasn't the case was when Li won the opening game in both her previous AO finals in 2011 and 2013. That wasn't so good.

But the latter stat wouldn't matter in the least.

After playing an up-and-down 1st set, searching for consistency on both her first serve and forehand, and having to scratch out and scrounge up winners wherever she could find them in order to take a set in which she didn't play nearly as well as she had since she stared down that match point against Safarova in the 3rd Round, Li played like the world had been lifted from her shoulders in the 2nd. And it had. Having found a way to live up to her role as "favorite" by taking the lead, Li ran away with the title.

After falling down love/30 on serve in the opening game, she reeled off four straight points to hold. In game #2, Li smacked a second serve forehand return for a down-the-line winner to get a break point. A Cibulkova forehand error made it 2-0. With her confidence growing with every shot, Li held and then looked to grab the match by the throat and choke the life out of it. She took a backhand and ripped it into the corner to reach break point in game #4, then hit a crosscourt backhand laser off Cibulkova's racket to go up 4-0. With her game flowing, Li's first serve percentage rose, while she played well within itself, and seemingly without tension.

A put-away at the net secured game #5, as by this point Cibulkova was essentially just serving in the role of "opponent" on Li's march to match point. As the evitable got closer and closer, it was as if Li was waving to the crowd along the way. She shot off a backhand winner down the line, then another backhand crosscourt into the corner past the Slovak. A ball off the net cord was sent long by Cibulkova to get to double match point at 40/15. Li didn't get the first, then a Cibulkova forehand went long to hand her the second. Locking away the final nine games of the match, and losing just six points on serve in the final set, Li won 7-6(3)/6-0 to become the eighth woman to win a slam after her 30th birthday, and the first Asian woman to win the "grand slam of Asia/Pacific."

Of course, even as the newly-crowned multiple grand slam winner, and the oldest to woman to win the Australian Open, received her trophy during the post-match ceremony, the best was still yet to come. Somehow, with Li, that always seems to be the case. As tennis' best one woman comedy act took to the microphone, you had to know that something great might be coming. And Li didn't disappoint. In fact, she let the natural one-liners flow from her mind just as smoothly as her shots had in the final set.

To her agent Max Eisenbud, she said simply, "Max, agent.. make me rich. Thanks a lot." With that, she had the crowd at "Thanks." After telling her physio Alex Stober that her stumbles and falls in last year's AO final were her fault and not his, and thanking Rodriguez for believing in her, she turned to her husband Jiang Shan, "Dennis," the long-time focus of so many of her jokes, telling him, "My husband, you are famous in China.". She said thanks to him for "just traveling with me to be my hitting partner, fix the drink, and fix the rackets. So, he do a lot of jobs. So, thanks a lot... you're a nice guy." After everyone was laughing along with both of them, she added, "And also you are so lucky... found me," she said with big grin. By the end, she was even talking about coming back to Melbourne to play again, and saying that she knows everyone thinks she talks too much.

Li can talk all she wants. We won't get tired of listening.

...yesterday, the first major champions of this AO were crowned as Sara Errani & Roberta Vinci defended their 2013 crown, winning their fourth major title as a duo ('12 RG & '12 US).

It took a bit of late work, as well as a blown lead from Ekaterina Makarova & Elena Vesnina to do it, though. The Russians led 5-2 in the 3rd set before the Italians staged a comeback by sweeping the final five games of the match.

Errani & Vinci now have seventeen titles as a team, more than any other "current" doubles pairing on tour other than the Williams Sisters (w/ 21). juniors, Hordette Elizaveta Kulichkova defeated Jana Fett to take the women's title, preventing the Croat from becoming the second straight Croatian (Ana Konjuh '13) girls champ in Melbourne. The Russian, though, became the fourth straight AO winner to sweep the junior singles and doubles, as she and Anhelina Kalinina took the doubles crown yesterday. Kulichkova follows in the footsteps of sweeping winners An-Sophie Mestash (2011), Taylor Townsend (2012) and Konjuh.

Top-seeded German Alexader Zverev defeated American Stefan Kozlov to take the boys title. the Wheelchair finals, all four titles were won by the #1 seeds. In doubles, Yui Kamiji & Jordanne Whiley took the women's title, while Stephane Houdet and Shingo Kunieda took the men's. Kunieda also defended his singles championship.

In the women's, Sabine Ellerbrock defeated #2 Kamiji in a three-set final. Last year, the German was runner-up to Aniek van Koot, who missed this AO with tendonitis that also kept her out of action late last year.

...Everybody's Favorite Doubles Partner, Kristina Mladenovic, is now one win away from being half-way to a Career Mixed Slam at age 20. She and Daniel Nestor will face Sania Mirza & Horia Tecau in the Mixed final. The French/Canadian pair won the Wimbledon Mixed crown last season. They were also runners-up at Roland Garros and semifinalists at the U.S. Open.

The Mixed final will take place tomorrow before the Nadal/Wawrinka men's championship.

...after the Li/Cibulkova final, Lukasz Kubot & Robert Lindstedt defeated Eric Butorac & Raven Klaasen in the men's doubles final.

#4 Li Na/CHN def. #20 Dominika Cibulkova/SVK 7-6(3)/6-0

#1 Rafael Nadal/ESP vs. #8 Stanislas Wawrinka/SUI

#1 Errani/Vinci (ITA/ITA) def. #3 Makarova/Vesnina (RUS/RUS) 6-4/3-6/7-5

#14 Kubot/Lindstedt (POL/SWE) def. Butorac/Klaasen (USA/RSA) 6-3/6-3

Mladenovic/Nestor (FRA/CAN) vs. #6 Mirza/Tecau (IND/ROU)

#4 Elizaveta Kulichkova/RUS def. Jana Fett/CRO 6-2/6-1

#1 Alexander Zverev/GER def. #2 Stefan Kozlov/USA 6-3/6-0

#1 Kalinina/Kulichkova (UKR/RUS) def. #2 Boulter/Jorovic (GBR/SRB) 6-4/6-2

#5 Mielder/Mousley (AUT/AUS) def. #3 Halys/Tatlot (FRA/FRA) 6-4/6-3

#1 Sabine Ellerbrock/GER def. #2 Yui Kamiji/JPN 3-6/6-4/6-2

#1 Shingo Kunieda/JPN def. Gustavo Fernandez/ARG 6-0/6-1

#1 Kamiji/Whiley (JPN/GER) def. #2 Buis/Griffioen (NED/NED) 6-2/6-7/6-2

#1 Houdet/Kunieda (FRA/JPN) def. #2 Reid/Scheffers (GBR/NED) 6-3/6-3

*RECENT SLAM WINNERS - back from match point*
2003 AO - Serena Williams (down 2 MP vs. Clijsters in SF)
2004 RG - Anastasia Myskina (down MP vs. Kuznetsova in 4th Rd.)
2005 AO - Serena Williams (down 3 MP vs. Sharapova in SF)
2005 RG - Justine Henin-Hardenne (down MP vs. Kuznetsova in 4th Rd.)
2005 WI - Venus Williams (down MP vs. Davenport in Final)
2009 WI - Serena Williams (down MP vs. Dementieva in SF)
2014 AO - LI NA (down MP vs. Safarova in 3rd Rd.)

2011 Australian Open - Kim Clijsters d. Li Na 6-3/3-6/6-3
2011 Roland Garros - Li Na d. Francesca Schiavone 6-4/7-6
2013 Australian Open - Victoria Azarenka d. Li Na 4-6/6-4/6-3
2014 Australian Open - Li Na d. Dominika Cibulkova 7-6/6-0

21...Serena Williams (17-4)
14...Venus Williams (7-7)
8...Maria Sharapova (4-4)
4...Svetlana Kuznetsova (2-2)
4...Victoria Azarenka (2-2)
4...LI NA (2-2)
3...Ana Ivanovic (1-2)
[slam finals since 2010 - all players]
7...Serena Williams (6-1)
4...Victoria Azarenka (2-2)
4...LI NA (2-2)
4...Maria Sharapova (1-3)
2...Kim Clijsters (2-0)
2...Francesca Schiavon (1-1)
2...Samantha Stosur (1-1)
2...Vera Zvonareva (0-2)
[AO Finals - active]
5...Serena Williams (5-0)
3...LI NA (1-2)
3...Maria Sharapova (1-2)
2...Victoria Azarenka (2-0)
1...Ana Ivanovic (0-1)
1...Venus Williams (0-1)
[WTA Finals - since 2012]
21...Serena Williams (19-2)
16...Victoria Azarenka (9-7)
14...Maria Sharapova (5-9)
10...LI NA (4-6)
9...Agnieszka Radwanska (6-3)
9...Sara Errani (5-4)

Unseeded - 1978 Chris O'Neil, AUS
Unseeded - 2007 Serena Williams, USA
#12 - 2001 Jennifer Capriati, USA
#7 - 2005 Serena Williams, USA
#5 - 1979 Barbara Jordan, USA
#5 - 2008 Maria Sharapova, RUS
#4 - 1995 Mary Pierce, FRA
#4 - 1997 Martina Hingis, SUI
#4 - 2014 Li Na, CHN

4...Serena Williams (2 at 30, 2 at 31)
3...Martina Navratilova (2 at 30, 1 at 33)
3...Margaret Court (2 at 30, 1 at 31)
2...Billie Jean King (30 & 31)
2...Chris Evert (30 & 31)
1...LI NA (31)
1...Virginia Wade (31)
1...Ann Haydon Jones (30)

2001 Jelena Jankovic/SRB def. Sofia Arvidsson/SWE
2002 Barbora Zahlavova-Strycova/CZE def. Maria Sharapova/RUS
2003 Barbora Zahlavova-Strycova/CZE def. Victoriya Kutuzova/UKR
2004 Shahar Peer/ISR def. Nicole Vaidisova/CZE
2005 Victoria Azarenka/BLR def. Agnes Szavay/HUN
2006 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova/RUS def. Caroline Wozniacki/DEN
2007 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova/RUS def. Madison Brengle/USA
2008 Arantxa Rus/NED def. Jessica Moore/AUS
2009 Ksenia Pervak/RUS def. Laura Robson/GBR
2010 Karolina Pliskova/CZE def. Laura Robson/GBR
2011 An-Sophie Mestach/BEL def. Monica Puig/PUR
2012 Taylor Townsend/USA def. Yulia Putintseva/RUS
2013 Ana Konjuh/CRO def. Katerina Siniakova/CZE
2014 Elizaveta Kulichkova/RUS def. Jana Fett/CRO

AO: Karolina Pliskova, CZE
RG: Elina Svitolina, UKR
WI: Kristyna Pliskova, CZE
US: Daria Gavrilova, RUS
AO: An-Sophie Mestach, BEL
RG: Ons Jabeur, TUN
WI: Ashleigh Barty, AUS
AO: Grace Min, USA
AO: Taylor Townsend, USA
RG: Annika Beck, GER
WI: Eugenie Bouchard, CAN
US: Samantha Crawford, USA
AO: Ana Konjuh, CRO
RG: Belinda Bencic, SUI
WI: Belinda Bencic, SUI
US: Ana Konjuh, CRO
AO: Elizaveta Kulichkova, RUS

1965 Wimbledon - Olga Morozova
1971 Roland Garros - Elena Granatourova
1971 Wimbledon - Marina Kroshina
1975 Wimbledon - Natasha Chmyreva
1975 US Open - Natasha Chmyreva
1976 Wimbledon - Natasha Chmyreva
1986 Wimbledon - Natalia Zvereva
1987 Roland Garros - Natalia Zvereva
1987 Wimbledon - Natalia Zvereva
1987 US Open - Natalia Zvereva
1998 Roland Garros - Nadia Petrova
1999 Wimbledon - Lina Krasnoroutskaya
2002 Wimibledon - Vera Dushevina
2002 US Open - Maria Kirilenko
2006 Australian Open - Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova
2006 US Open - Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova
2007 Australian Open - Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova
2009 Australian Open - Ksenia Pervak
2010 US Open - Daria Gavrilova
2014 Australian Open - Elizaveta Kulichkova

**AO DOUBLES CHAMPIONS - last 10 years**
2005 Svetlana Kuznetsova & Alicia Molik
2006 Yan Zi & Zheng Jie
2007 Cara Black & Liezel Huber
2008 Alona Bondarenko & Kateryna Bondarenko
2009 Serena Williams & Venus Williams
2010 Serena Williams & Venus Williams
2011 Gisela Dulko & Flavia Pennetta
2012 Svetlana Kuznetsova & Vera Zvonareva
2013 Sara Errani & Roberta Vinci
2014 Sara Errani & Roberta Vinci

13...Serena Williams
13...Venus Williams
6...Lisa Raymond
5...Cara Black
5...Liezel Huber

2007 Madison Brengle, USA
2008 Jessica Moore, AUS & Arantxa Rus, NED
2009 Ksenia Pervak, RUS
2010 Karolina & Kristyna Pliskova, CZE/CZE
2011 Japanese girls
2012 Taylor Townsend, USA
2013 Ana Konjuh, CRO
2014 Elizaveta Kulichkova, RUS

2011 Andrea Petkovic, GER
2012 Victoria Azarenka, BLR
2013 Laura Robson, GBR
2014 Li Na, CHN

[since Azarenka won AO/to #1 in January '12]
AO - Azarenka
Madrid - S.Williams
Rome - Sharapova
RG - Sharapova
WI - S.Williams
Olympics - S.Williams
US - S.Williams
WTA - S.Williams
Brisbane (Sharapova w/d from MD) - S.Williams
AO - Azarenka
Doha - Azarenka
Miami (Azarenka w/d from MD) - S.Williams
Madrid - S.Williams
Rome - S.Williams
RG - S.Williams
Cincinnati - Azarenka
Brisbane - S.Williams
AO - Li

2003 Bob Bryan & Mike Bryan
2004 Xavier Malisse & Olivier Rochus
2005 Jonas Bjorkman & Max Mirnyi
2006 Jonas Bjorkman & Max Mirnyi
2007 Mark Knowles & Daniel Nestor
2008 Pablo Cuevas & Luis Horna
2009 Lukas Dlouhy & Leander Paes
2010 Daniel Nestor & Nenad Zimonjic
2011 Max Mirnyi & Daniel Nestor
2012 Max Mirnyi & Daniel Nestor
2013 Bob Bryan & Mike Bryan
2014 Lukasz Kubot & Robert Lindstedt

TOP EARLY ROUND (1r-2r): #1 Serena Williams/USA
TOP QUALIFYING MATCH: Q1: Cristina Mitu/ROU def. #4 Anna-Lena Friedsam/GER 3-6/6-4/9-7
TOP EARLY RD. MATCH (1r-2r): 2nd Rd. - #3 Maria Sharapova/RUS def. Karin Knapp/ITA 6-3/4-6/10-8
TOP MIDDLE-RD. MATCH (3r-QF): 4th Rd. - #14 Ivanovic d. #1 S.Williams 4-6/6-3/6-3
TOP LATE RD. MATCH (SF-F/Jr./Doub.): Doubles Final - #1 Errani/Vinci (ITA/ITA) d. #3 Makarova/Vesnina (RUS/RUS) 6-4/3-6/7-5
TOP LAVER NIGHT MATCH: 3rd Rd. - #14 Ivanovic d. #17 Stosur 6-7(8)/6-4/6-2
FIRST VICTORY: #18 Kirsten Flipkens/BEL (def. Laura Robson/GBR)
FIRST SEED OUT: #7 Sara Errani/ITA (lost 1st Rd. to Julia Goerges, GER)
NATION OF POOR SOULS: Italy (top-seeded #7 Errani & #12 Vinci out 1st Round; Schiavone out 1st Rd. 5/6 slams)
LAST WILD CARD STANDING: Casey Dellacqua/AUS (4th Rd.)
LAST AUSSIE STANDING: Casey Dellacqua/AUS (4th Rd.)
Ms. OPPORTUNITY: Dominika Cibulkova/SVK
IT (Teen): Eugenie Bouchard/CAN
CRASH & BURN: #6 Petra Kvitova/CZE (lost 1st Rd. to world #88 Luksika Kumkhum; worst slam result since losing 1st Rd. at '11 U.S. Open following Wimbledon title run)
ZOMBIE QUEEN: #4 Li Na/CHN (3rd Rd. - saved MP vs. Safarova)
AMG SLAM FUTILITY UPDATE: lost 1st Rd. to (LL) Falconi/USA, once again failing to reach a slam QF in her career (so Anna Smashnova still has a buddy); 7 con. slam losses; 22 1st Round exits in 47 slams
DOUBLES STAR: Nominees: S.Mirza, K.Mladenovic
JUNIOR BREAKOUT: Elizaveta Kulichkova/RUS

All for Day 13. More tomorrow.


Blogger Diane said...

It was Li's time. Once she survived the Safarova match, she felt it. Credit also to Carlos R., who knew exactly what to do to get his protege to the next level. And she listened to him, thank goodness.

Most under-the-radar performance of the tournament: Errani and Vinci. Wow.

Sat Jan 25, 09:37:00 PM EST  
Blogger Todd.Spiker said...

It'll be interesting to see if Errani/Vinci can pull off the Melbourne/Paris Indoors two-fer again like they did last year, too. It could be very important in the early season jockeying for position as far as the #1 doubles ranking.

Sun Jan 26, 12:31:00 AM EST  

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