Those who have played sports know what it feels like to be in constant search of perfection. It’s often the driving force that brings us back for more punishment - heartbreaking losses, hours of practice, the willingness to play through injuries, stretching the body’s limits. Sport is both mental and physical.
Li Na found perfection in the Australian Open final. She conquered the mental demons of two failed attempts at Aussie glory, and orchestrated a symphonic, yet lethal, second set to defeat Dominika Cibulkova. After a competitive first set that Li snatched in a tiebreaker, the Chinese trailblazer sprinted to a 6-0 finish in the second.
Something special happened in that second set. It featured some of the most sure-footed, sweet-swinging tennis you’ll ever see. Li’s impeccable footwork placed her in perfect positions to swing through the ball, create impossible angles, and astound with the stealthy precision of her backhand. That backhand. The sweet sound of that backhand.The power of that backhand. Li Na’s backhand is an example of where beauty and art intersect with sport, a breathtaking thing to witness.
Dominika Cibulkova has nothing to be embarrassed about. She showed little nerves in her first Slam final, in a match that very few expected her to win. Not only did she compete well, but she charmed the crowd on Rod Laver Arena and endeared herself to the tennis world. Her future is now brighter than it’s ever been. She’s often referred to as a “scrappy” player, but that doesn’t quite do her talent justice. She beat the numbers 3, 5 and 11 seeds on her way to the final. Simply put, she’s got game.
But this match was Li’s showcase. Despite the immense pressure of playing all seven matches as the favourite, she sustained her poise and trademark humour. When she watched Cibulkova’s final forehand sail just long, Li raised her arms in muted celebration, the kind that signalled relief more than anything else. Twice before she had let a 1 set lead evaporate in the Australian Open final. This time, perhaps spurred by having already saved a match point against Safarova in the 3rd round, Li made no mistake.
It’s not just that Li Na was too good a player to have only won one Slam, it’s that her game was too good as well. Sometimes players succeed at a rate that doesn’t match their physical gifts. Maria Sharapova is a good example. Her ability to grind and compete has won her so many matches that less determined players of similar talent would have lost. Li Na is different. When you watch her play, there’s no questioning her ability - she’s got the strokes, she’s got the game.
On Monday, Li Na will officially become the third ranked player in women’s tennis - a position she’s occupied unofficially for most of the last year. Serena, Vika, Li - sounds about right. These are the three players who have been the most consistent over the past 12 months and now the rankings will reflect it.
I’ve gone into some detail trying to capture what makes Li Na such a great tennis player. But, there’s more to her than that. What makes her such a force is her irresistible personality. It’s what helped vault her into international superstardom after winning the 2011 French Open. Her acceptance speeches are now part of the main event; she’s easily the funniest woman on the WTA Tour. It was no small feat that, after having just won one of the most important matches of her career, Li then gave one of the greatest speeches you’ll ever see.
The 2014 Australian Open will be remembered for many things, one being the slew of upsets on both sides of the draw. Few people expected somebody other than Serena Williams to be the last woman standing. I certainly didn’t. Instead, we got another of the WTA’s biggest names. This final should remind us that Li Na is one of a kind - an immense asset to tennis, a magnetic star, the complete package.
Watch Li Na’s victory speech below.