When Li Na thinks back to her first Australian Open final, she doesn’t recall feeling nervous. Just very excited. The 31-year-old Chinese star makes her third attempt at winning the championship in Melbourne on Saturday, and this time she’s nervous.
Experience has taught her how to play on tennis’ biggest stages, Li said on the eve of the final. “Come to the court. Just play. Don’t think too much,’’ said Li, who this time — for the first time — is considered the favorite to win the Australian Open.
After two weeks of stunning upsets cleared away Li’s top competition, she will face No. 20-seeded Dominika Cibulkova, an unheralded but explosive player who has steamrolled through the tournament with the carefree spirit of a player with nothing to lose. The 24-year-old Slovakian beat four higher-ranked players including No. 3 Maria Sharapova in the fourth-round and No. 5 Agnieszka Radwanska in the semifinals.
“Everyone has a chance to win the title,’’ Li said Friday, deflecting questions about the pressure of managing expectations or the fact that this is Cibulkova’s first final, or that she has played Cibulkova four times and beaten her on each occasion. “I think I’m ready. Same like her.’’
One thing Li did talk about — a recurring theme of her news conferences in Melbourne — is how much she’s changed. The Li Na in this year’s final is not the same player that lost to Victoria Azarenka in 2013, or to the now-retired Kim Clijsters in 2011. Li’s breakthrough came at the 2011 Australian Open when she gained fame as the first Chinese player to reach a Grand Slam final. “I was so excited. I never thought about (being) nervous,’’ she said.
Li lost in Melbourne that year, but a few months later at the French Open became the first Chinese player to win a major. Her 2013 final was one of the most unusual ever played at Melbourne Park, with Li crashing to the court and nearly knocking herself out. A doctor rushed out and performed a neurological exam as the hushed crowd watched.
Li has joked several times that the key to winning in Melbourne is staying upright. She has also spoken about the revisions she’s made to her game and her mental approach under the guidance of coach Carlos Rodriguez, the former coach of seven-time major winner Justine Henin. “I’ve changed a lot since last year,’’ Li said.
Since last season, Li has worked with Rodriguez on changing her grip when she serves and hits backhands, resulting in more power and consistency. She’s also playing more aggressive at the net, which was not an easy sell.
“When Carlos told me the first time, ‘you should come in more to volley,’ I was like, ‘What is this guy talking about?’’’ Li said, joking that she was happy to “stay at the baseline for 100 years, and never try coming to the net.’’