MELBOURNE, Australia – This will be Li Nas third time in the Australian Open final and her goal, she half-jokes, is to not fall down. For Dominika Cibulkova, the game plan is to enjoy the moment that she describes as a beautiful dream coming true.
The fourth-seeded Li is the favorite to win Saturdays final, based on her ranking, her experience and the fact that she already has won a major – the 2011 French Open. But the past two weeks have proved that there is nothing predictable about this years Open.
After a tournament of upsets, the championship is marked by whos not in it: No. 1 Serena Williams, a winner of 17 majors; No. 2 Victoria Azarenka, the two-time defending champion; and No. 3 Maria Sharapova, the four-time Grand Slam winner who was beaten in the fourth round by the energetic Cibulkova.
Playing as the underdog has suited 20th-seeded Cibulkova. The 24-year-old has won all but one of her matches in straight sets, including three in just an hour or less.
The diminutive Slovakian who stands a mere 5-foot-3, has endeared herself to the crowds at Melbourne Park with a ferocious fighting spirit on-court and heartfelt comments afterward.
I still cant believe Im playing finals. I cant believe this is happening, Cibulkova told the Rod Laver Arena crowd on Thursday after another upset in the semifinals over 2012 Wimbledon finalist Agnieszka Radwanska. When Cibulkova hit the last forehand winner, she threw her racket into the air, fell flat on her back and then buried her hands in her face.
Li, 31, knows what its like to suffer during a final in Melbourne. Last year, she twisted her ankle and fell over twice before losing the 2013 Australian Open final to Azarenka. On the second tumble she fell and hit the back of her head on the hard court, needing on-court treatment by a tournament doctor who assessed her for a concussion as the crowd watched.
At least Ill try to not fall down this time, Li said Thursday after beating Canadian teen Eugenie Bouchard 6-2, 6-4. Last year in the final, I think I played well, but I only can say I was unlucky because falling down twice.
Looking to the final, Li said she expects a tough match because she and Cibulkova have similar styles. Theyre both fast, powerful and cover the court with speed.
Li is 4-0 against Cibulvoka in head-to-head matches.
In the mens semifinals, eighth-ranked Stanislas Wawrinka reached his first major final with a 6-3, 7-6 (1), 6-7 (3), 7-6 (4) win over Tomas Berdych. Early today, 17-time major winner Roger Federer was set to play Rafael Nadal.