China’s Li Na stormed to her second Grand Slam title yesterday, battling past brave underdog Dominika Cibulkova 7-6 (7/3), 6-0 to become the oldest woman ever to win the Australian Open.
The 31-year-old fourth seed was crowned the Melbourne Park champion on her third attempt after losing in the 2011 and last year’s finals, adding to the French Open title she won three years ago.
In doing so, she became the oldest winner of the women’s title, surpassing Margaret Court who was 30 when she became champion in 1973.
The Chinese star also joins an exclusive list of just seven other players to win a Grand Slam at 30-plus, with her name now in the history books alongside greats such as Martina Navratilova, Billie Jean King, Chris Evert and Serena Williams.
The win pushes her one place higher in the world rankings to No. 3, just 11 points adrift of Victoria Azarenka at No. 2 behind Serena Williams.
It was a gutsy effort by the Chinese star, who overcame the pressure of having lost twice before while bearing the weight of expectation from her homeland of 1.3 billion people.
While the diminutive Cibulkova — nicknamed the “pocket rocket” — has been in the best form of her life, Li was the favorite and used her experience to take out the Slovak after a tight first set lasting 70 minutes.
Li got off to the best possible start, going 1-0 up on the Cibulkova serve when the Slovak gifted her the game with a double-fault on a second break point.
The Chinese star played comfortably, with the 24-year-old Slovak struggling to produce any decisive returns as her shots repeatedly failed to find their mark.
However, she crucially came through the third game, fighting off two break points, one with a lovely passing shot, to stay in touch at 1-2.
Li held in the next as she dictated the rallies, but her first serve was becoming a serious problem.
After three service games she had only got 13 percent of first serves in and was seen looking at her husband, Jiang Shan, in the crowd while pointing to her racquet.
This opened door for Cibulkova, with two Li double-faults allowing her to break back for 3-3. A decisive service game then put the Slovak in front for the first time as the momentum began swinging in her favor.
However, Li soon ironed out her issues and it went with serve till 5-5, when she pounced, stroking a sumptuous cross-court backhand for break point. A Cibulkova backhand into the net put Li 6-5 up and serving for the set.
Li was unable to ram home the advantage, with the Slovak breaking back to force a tiebreak, in which Li finally prevailed after producing some scintillating winners.
She kept up the pressure, holding serve in the second set then breaking Cibulkova, who pushed a forehand wide, to take a firm grip on the final.
Li raced to a 3-0 lead then broke again as Cibulkova ran out of steam as the pressure got too much.
Li won on the Cibulkova serve when the Slovak sent a forehand long, raising her arms in celebration before climbing into the stands to greet her husband and her coach, Carlos Rodriguez.
The victory helps Li, the poster girl for a huge push by women’s tennis into Asia, make up for the misery of losing the final twice before.
She was a set up before falling to Kim Clijsters three years ago and last year was also ahead against Victoria Azarenka, but rolled her ankle twice, banging her head hard on the court the second time.
Despite her defeat, Cibulkova, who has impressed at Melbourne with her relentless energy and eye-catching shots, will move up to No. 13 when the new world rankings are released tomorrow.