Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Just for laughs, Li takes Oz Open

Turns in comedy routine for fans after win

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MELBOURNE, Australia -- Once again, Li Na had the Rod Laver Arena crowd on its feet, roaring -- this time with laughter.

Her encore to a 7-6 (3), 6-0 win over Dominika Cibulkova in the Australian Open title match Saturday night made her even more popular at Melbourne Park, where she lost two finals in the previous three years.

So she repaid her supporters with one of her best improv standup routines.

First, she thanked her agent "for making me rich," then her coach, Carlos Rodriguez, and then her husband, Shan Jiang, her former coach and constant travelling companion.

"Thanks for him give up everything just travelling with me to be my hitting partner, fix the drinks, fix the racket -- so thanks a lot; you are a nice guy," she told Shan in a rare public compliment, pausing for the laughter. "Also, you are so lucky (to) find me."

Li, who will turn 32 next month, is the oldest women's champion in Australia in the Open era. She didn't see age as a barrier, obviously, replying to a question on the topic with a smile and an opinion: "I'm not old!"

"Yeah, start of tournament everybody talking about the age. I would like to say age is nothing," she said. "Still can win the Grand Slam. So pretty happy about my age. I got more experience on the court."

Li lost the Australian Open finals to Kim Clijsters in 2011 and to Victoria Azarenka last year, when she twisted her ankle twice in the second and third sets and needed a medical time out after hitting her head on the court. In between, she won the 2011 French Open in one of the many firsts she's established for Chinese tennis.

Yet it was a defeat that almost had the biggest impact on her career, with heavy criticism in the domestic media following a second-round loss at last year's French Open that sent her to the verge of retiring.

Rodriguez, who previously worked with Justine Henin, had to talk Li into playing Wimbledon, encouraging her to just see how she progressed at the All England club before making such a big career decision. She responded by reaching the quarter-finals at Wimbledon, the semifinals at the U.S. Open and now breaking her drought in Australia.

On Saturday, she paid tribute to Rodriguez' calm, composed approach and support. "Before the match, he was telling me to relax, just think it's a match, don't think it's a final," she recounted, admitting she'd even taken time out for an afternoon nap.

"He always say, 'Believe in yourself.' He always believed in me, I never believed in myself. That was my problem."

In both her previous finals at Melbourne Park, Li won the first set but went down in three. She had no such trouble against No. 20 seed Cibulkova, playing in her first major final.

Li opened the final by breaking Cibulkova, holding, then getting a break-point chance in the third game. But Cibulkova held, then broke back in the sixth game, thanks to a pair of double faults from Li.

Another service break followed, and Li had a set point before losing three straight points to ensure it went to the tiebreaker.

As the second set began, a fan yelled "C'mon Li Na, bagel her!" She did. A half hour later she was holding up both thumbs to the crowd and holding back tears as she hugged her Slovakian rival.

The diminutive Cibulkova, one of the shortest players to reach a Grand Slam final at 5-3, had four wins over Top 20 players on her way to the final, including a fourth-round upset of third seed Maria Sharapova and a straight-sets semifinal trouncing of No. 5 Agnieszka Radwanska.

Li didn't have to face a player ranked in the Top 20 en route to the final, opening with wins over the two youngest players in the tournament, then saving a match point in her third-round win over Lucie Safarova, who was a fraction away from causing a major upset.


-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 26, 2014 B6

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