It’s an unlikely pair in the women’s singles final of the 2014 Australian Open, thanks to huge upsets of top seeds Serena Williams, Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova in earlier rounds.
However, the finalists—Li Na of China and Dominika Cibulkova of Slovakia are not complaining.
Li is appearing in her third final in Melbourne, where she has settled for runners-up honors in two of the last three years. Meanwhile, Cibulkova is not apologising for the unexpected appearance in the final; after all, she is to blame for the Sharapova upset and then beat higher-seeded players in the fourth round, quarters and semis to advance to the championship round.
With the top three seeds out by the semifinals, the 31-year-old Chinese veteran campaigner was pegged as the favourite to win it all in Melbourne.
Don’t tell that to the 24-year-old Slovakian who has now won the last four matches as the underdog. She beat 16th seed Carla Suarez Navarro (SPA), 6-1, 6-0, in the third round; Maria Sharapova (RUS), 3-6, 6-4, 6-1, in the round of 16; 11th seed Simona Halep (ROU) in the quarterfinals; and 5th seed Agnieska Radwanska (POL) in the semifinals.
For her part, the 4th seed’s most memorable and important match would be her third round encounter with Lucie Safarova of Czech Republic. China's bet lost the first set, 1-6, and survived a match point when she was down 5-6 in the second set. The two-time Australian Open finalist buckled down to work, won the tiebreak and won the third with ease to advance to the next round.
After staring death in the face-- and surviving-- Li then cruised to wins in her next matches with straight sets win over Ekaterina Makarova (RUS), 6-2, 6-0, in the fourth round; Flavia Pennetta (ITA), 6-2, 6-2, in the quarterfinals; and Eugenie Bouchard (CAN), 6-2, 6-4, in the semifinals.
Li has one majors title—the 2011 French Open—under her belt, while this is the farthest Cibulkova has gotten to in any Grand Slam tourney. The latter is also the first Slovak—man or woman—to appear in a Grand Slam final.
Will Li’s veteran smarts get better of the rather inexperienced opponent? Or will Cibulkova finish her Cinderella run with an Aussie Open title?
Li Na (China) vs. Dominika Cibulkova (Slovakia) at 7:30 pm AEDT Li (1.33) vs. Cibulkova (3.34) Li (-3.5) vs. Cibulkova (+3.5)
All-time head-to-head (4 meetings): Li leads Cibulkova, 4-0
Prediction: Li loses third appearance in the Aussie final; she lost to Kim Clijsters (2011) and Victoria Azarenka (2013) in the previous two and Cibulkova’s fairy tale run ends with a Majors hardware. On Saturday, Slovakia is bigger than China as Cibulkova becomes the first Slovakian to win a Grand Slam title.