Li to play Cibulkova in Open final

A Chinese player who defied the system will play a Slovakian who defied the rankings in the final of an Australian Open that has defied the world’s best players.

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In a championship decider that on paper looks lopsided, Li Na, the fourth seed, plays 20th seed Dominika Cibulkova.

But it shapes as a match that could go either way without surprising.

For Li, victory would be deserved after twice reaching the final at Melbourne Park and twice being denied.

A year ago against Victoria Azarenka, she fell, twisting her ankle and hitting her head so hard on the court she suffered concussion.

In 2011, she led 1-0 against Kim Clijsters in her first grand slam final, only to crumble.

Li’s 6-2 6-4 defeat on Thursday of Canadian teenager Eugenie Bouchard has made her favourite for Saturday’s final, but the scoreline also disguised a nagging fragility in the 31-year-old’s game.

Li raced to a 5-0, first-set lead in only 14 minutes, promising a win in record time.

She then lost momentum, taking the same amount of time to wrap up the set, and a further 58 minutes to complete the victory.

Li’s presence in the final reflects the attitude that helped her break free from the regimented Chinese sporting system, setting her own schedule, keeping her own prize money and employing her own coaches.

She duly became the first Chinese player to win a WTA singles title, the first to reach a grand slam quarter-final, the first to make the world’s top 20 and the first to win a grand slam.

“I didn’t stay in the national team. I didn’t have a chance to practice,” Li said after her semi-final win.

“For your whole life, you face so many choices … you choose the one that is best for you.

“This is what I did.”

Li didn’t have a choice of opponents in Saturday’s final but, if she did, she would have chosen Cibulkova, who she has beaten in each of their four meetings.

Cibulkova belied the seedings in her 6-1 6-2 defeat of Poland’s Agnieszka Radwanska to make her first grand slam final.

The fifth-seeded Radwanska had the form and the record to dominate the semi-final, but Cibulkova handled her as she had her previous four, more highly-ranked, opponents.

Cibulkova added Radwanska to a list that at this tournament includes third seed Maria Sharapova, 11th seed Simona Halep and 16th seed Carla Suarez Navarro.

The 24-year-old said she approached the semi-final as she had every other match.

“Even if I made mistakes, I knew I had to go out there and go for my shots,” Cibulkova said.

While Li has the record and the experience, Cibulkova can take heart from the tournament’s history.

Not since Margaret Smith Court won in 1973 has any woman over the age of 30 claimed an Australian Open crown.

The list of those to have tried and failed includes some of the greatest players of the past century, including Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert – and Li herself 12 months ago.

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