8:26 am - Sunday November 8, 2015

Li Na, Dominka Cibulkova storm into Australian Open final

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WILL it be third time lucky for Li Na as she marched into the Australian Open women’s final for a third time ending the hopes of talented teenager Eugenie Bouchard?

Li was solid in her shot selection in a controlled 6-2 6-4 semi-final win over the young Canadian in Melbourne today.

She will meet 20th seed Dominika Cibulkova in the final after the Slovakian took down raging favourite, Agnieszka Radwanska 6-1 6-2 in the other semi.

The Chinese jumped to 5-0 in the first set with Bouchard only managing to win four points in those opening games.

Coach Carlos Rodriguez had told Li to focus on the Bouchard forehand and moving the young Canadian side to side. While an outstanding prospect at just 19-years-old, with a solid all-round game, Bouchard’s lateral movement is a work in progress.

Li followed orders and let loose with some deep groundstrokes with pace. She topped it off with acutely-angled crosscourt backhands that got her out of trouble many times.

Fittingly she executed the shot on match point to put her into Saturday night’s final on Rod Laver Arena.

“Maybe she will be the best in the world one day, but not today. I was very lucky,” Li told the Rod Laver Arena crowd, where among the guests where women’s tennis royalty Margaret Court and Evonne Goolagong-Cawley. Both women won the Australian Open three times in a row.

An antipicated fightback from Bouchard never came. Although after a 10 minute, five-deuce game to break Li’s serve early in the second set, it looked like Bouchard count mount something.

But she herself was broken the next game, the third, and again in the fifth. But when she broke Li again in the sixth, it was all-square at 3-3.

The nerves must have come for both women but Li unwrapped a newly-strung racquet leading 5-3 and while Bouchard held serve – for only the second time that set – the fourth seed wrapped things up the next game.

“I’m really sorry,” Li said, apologising to the ‘Genie Army’ (Bouchard supporters). If you want, I’ll go home now.”

This is Li’s grand slam to lose after the exit of the three seeds above her, Serena Williams (1), Victoria Azarenka (2) and Maria Sharapova (3).

Li has played in two previous Australian Opens – losing to Azarenka 12 months ago and to Kim Clijsters in 2011.

“Last time it was a little bit hard. I will try this time to make one more step,” she said, before giving her list for what she would change to try to breakthrough in Melbourne.

“No falling down on the court because I have experience of this last time,” she said referring to a left sprained ankle and banging the back of her head when she fell behind the baseline.

“I also want to enjoy. After working with the coach (Rodriguez) it’s about my technique. I think I played more stable from first point to the last point today.”

Cibulkova reacted with delight to reaching her first grand slam final.

“I still can’t believe this. I can’t believe it is happening. I will need some hours to get used to it. But I will be prepared 100 per cent,” said Cibulkova, who up until now had only ever reached one semi-final in the majors – Roland Garros back in 2009.

She is the smallest player in the top 100 in height, but has a heart the size of Bratislava – the capital of her home country.

“I was today very brave on the court,” she said. “It wasn’t easy to handle the situation because she’s (Radwanska) the best when she is defending. So I had to go for my shots.”

Perhaps backing up 24 hours after one of the biggest wins of her career – defeating two-time Melbourne champion Victoria Azarenka – was too much for Radwanska.

She looked flat from the outset. She had her serve broken three times in the first set and three times again in the second.

The Polish fifth seed lacked the steel will she showed against Azarenka. She only converted one of her nine breakpoint chances and made 18 unforced errors compared with Cibulkova’s eight.

All in all it was a sharp contrast to the Radwanska who dictated play against Azarenka in the quarter-finals. Today she was not chasing the ball with the same energy.

It was the Slovakian who wanted her place in history and stared down a 1-5 record against the Polish fifth seed. She has beaten four players ranked higher than her on her way to a maiden slam final – Carla Suarez-Navarro (16), Maria Sharapova (3), Simona Halep (11) and Radwanska (5).

Cibulkova was constantly urging herself on between points as she continued to hit winners from behind the baseline.

“I had so many thoughts in my head but I focused on that most important game winning my serve at 5-2 (Secodn set). That’s when I knew I’d do it,” she said of how she handled the nerves in the last minutes of the match.

“My energy was great. That’s something that’s coming inside of me. I was born with it – that’s how I play.”

And she will need plenty of it as Li has a 4-0 record over the 24-year-old.

“Lis a great player. I really look up to her when I was younger – still playing juniors,” Cibulkova said reminding everyone that Li is 31 years of age.

“Like every match here I want to fight. I hope people come and support me,” she said of Saturday night’s final.

Her coach Matej Liptak said Cibulkova’s energy made up for her lack of size.

“She’s special – very strong mentally. Sure we work on some tactics but the mental thing where she start to believe she can play a final … that’s the key,” Liptak said.

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