Australian Open 2014 Women's Final: Li vs. Cibulkova Preview and Prediction

Lindsay GibbsFeatured ColumnistJanuary 23, 2014

Australian Open 2014 Women's Final: Li vs. Cibulkova Preview and Prediction

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    Two weeks ago, nobody would have predicted this, but while Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka sit at home, Dominika Cibulkova and Li Na will face off on Saturday for the Australian Open title.

    This will be Li's third Australian Open final in the last four years, and this is, by far, the 2011 French Open champion's best chance to win her second major.

    But Cibulkova has been absolutely on fire all tournament long, and the 24-year-old from Slovakia will be looking to score her fourth upset in a row to follow in Marion Bartoli's footsteps and become another surprise Slam winner. 

    As we've learned over the last two weeks, anything can happen. Here's what you need to know about the women's final Down Under.

Who Has the Historical Edge?

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    It's safe to say that Li is the favorite headed into this final.

    The two-time runner-up in Melbourne leads the head-to-head matchup over Cibulkova 4-0. And that's not all—those matches haven't even been close. Li has won eight out of nine sets that the two have played, with Cibulkova's lone set victory coming in their 2010 match in Madrid on clay.

    The two first played each other way back in 2008 when Cibulkova was only 18 years old. The last time they faced off was last year in the Rogers Cup quarterfinals in Toronto, which Li won 7-6(1), 6-2. 

    Li has the edge when it comes to experience, too. The No. 4 player in the world will be playing in her fourth major final, while Cibulkova will be in her first.  No matter which way you slice it, history gives Li the advantage. 

Li Na at the Australian Open

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    After scrapping her way through her first two matches against teenagers, Li faced a big test in the third round against an in-form Lucie Safarova. The No. 26 seed at this tournament took the first set from Li 6-1, and then actually had a match point in the second set.

    Li only saved the match point because Safarova's forehand was about an inch long. But since getting that second life, she has been on fire.

    Li definitely got some help with Serena Williams falling to Ana Ivanovic in the fourth round, but she's taken care of everyone in her path—No. 22 Ekaterina Makarova in the fourth round, No. 28 Flavia Pennetta in the quarterfinals and No. 30 Eugenie Bouchard in the semifinals.

    As USA Today reported, Li gained a 5-0 lead over Bouchard in just 14 minutes, "while people were still entering Rod Laver Arena."

    “I feel like she didn’t give me much breathing space, much room to do what I wanted to do,” Bouchard told the New York Times. “She played too good almost.”

    It's clear that the 31-year-old veteran from China senses what a great opportunity this is to double her major count, and she's been playing like a woman on a mission since Safarova bailed her out.

Dominika Cibulkova at the Australian Open

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    No. 20 seed Cibulkova has absolutely, positively steamrolled her way through this draw, taking out every seed in her path. She hasn't benefited from upsets; she's caused them.

    It began in the third round when the diminutive dynamite only dropped one game to No. 16 Carla Suarez-Navarro. Then, people really started paying attention when she upset No. 3 seed Maria Sharapova in the fourth round to advance to her very first Australian Open quarterfinal.

    But Cibulkova was just getting started. She only dropped three games per match against No. 11 Simona Halep in the quarterfinals and No. 5 Agnieszka Radwanska in the semifinals, and is now into the first major final of her career.

    At 24 years old, Cibulkova is not letting the stage or the opponent intimidate her. She's taking command of the matches and embracing the role of the underdog to dramatic effect. 

The Biggest X-Factors

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    Health

    Last year in the Australian Open final, Li was seemingly in control of the match against Azarenka until she started to fall down. During her first fall, she twisted her ankle, and it looked like she was going to have to retire, but a tight tape job saved the day. 

    Later in the match she fell again, this time hitting her head hard on the court and having to get a concussion test from the medical staff before she could play on. She told AusOpen.com that one of her goals in this year's final is to stay on her feet. 

     

    Nerves

    This is Cibulkova's first time in a major final, and as we've seen with players time and again—most notably Sabine Lisicki in last year's Wimbledon final—playing in the last match of the fortnight is an experience that is hard to prepare for.

    So far, Cibulkova has handled every test thrown at her this tournament with ease, but it will be different when she's facing someone with as much experience as Li on such a big stage.

    For Li, this will be the first time she's headed into an Australian Open final as the favorite, so it will be interesting to see how she handles the pressure.

     

    Weather

    You might have heard that it has been hot throughout the fortnight in Melbourne, something that has helped players like Li and Cibulkova who put so much emphasis on their fitness.

    Well, Saturday evening is actually supposed to be cool—it could be 60 degrees Fahrenheit by the time they play. It might come down to who best adapts to the cooler conditions. 

Li Will Win the Final If...

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    For Li Na, it's all about keeping her cool. She has a history of not playing her best at the biggest moments—such as her semifinal match against Serena Williams at last year's U.S. Open—and if she's going to beat a player as feisty as Cibulkova, she's going to have to take her chances.

    Her cross-court backhand has been absolutely phenomenal all tournament long, especially in her semifinal victory over Bouchard. She's going to have to keep dictating the points with that, but because Cibulkova will try to avoid going to Li's backhand as much as possible, it might all come down to the forehand.

    Li's forehand can be a lethal weapon, or it can be an unstoppable force of errors. It's going to be crucial that she find the range on it. Cibulkova is aggressive, and she will punish any ball that is short and into the middle of the court. On the other hand, if the forehand misfires long or wide as it often does, that doesn't help Li either. If she can control her forehand, the title just might be hers.

    Oh, and first serves would help too. We saw in the semifinal what Cibulkova does to second serves

Cibulkova Will Win the Final If...

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    The key for Cibulkova in the final is just to keep playing the way she has been. She needs to forget that there's anything special about this match and just go out there, have fun and keep doing what she's been doing the last two weeks.

    Cibulkova is only 5'3" (if that...many feel that her official statistics are a bit generous in the height department), and so she doesn't have the big serve to get points started. But she's been serving well throughout the tournament, averaging 68 percent on her first serve. She's going to have to keep up that percentage so she can wrestle away control from Li, who is an excellent returner.

    She also has to keep being aggressive on the return. Li has incredible pace on her shots—much more so than Halep or Radwanska—so Cibulkova won't be able to control the rallies as much as she did in her quarterfinal and semifinal affair. But if she can punish the returns the way she's been doing, she has a good shot to knock Li off balance and gain the upper hand.

    Basically, it's all about the start for Cibulkova. She needs to serve well, return well and, most importantly, start the match off hot so that the occasion doesn't have a chance to overwhelm her.

Prediction

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    Although I expect this to be a tight match, the 2014 Australian Open is setting up to be another shining moment for the pride of China, Li Na.

    Li has always felt at home on the blue courts of Melbourne. It's where she made her first major semifinal back in 2010 and her first major final in 2011. In 2011, she played an in-form Kim Clijsters in the final. Last year, she played the No. 1 player in the world and defending champion Victoria Azarenka. Li was able to push both of those opponents to three sets, but just wasn't able to cross the finish line.

    Now, in her third Australian Open final, she has finally caught a break. She's facing the No. 20 seed Cibulkova, whom she's 4-0 against and who will be playing in her first major final.

    Cibulkova certainly cannot be overlooked—she's taken down every seed in her path over the last two weeks, and her strike-first game can give anyone fits. But Li has been here before, and she knows how rare these moments are. She should come away from Saturday night with major No. 2.