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Tennis: Aussie Open sizzles with China's hottie vs the 'Pocket rocket'

January 24, 2014 7:31 AM
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Tiny Dominikia Cibulkova, known as the 'Pocket rocket' aims for a maiden Grand Slam at the Australian Open, if she can overcome the Great Wall of China, three-time Open finalist and top-seeded Li Na, of China.

MELBOURNE: The wise-cracking Chinese tennis star has brought tennis to a huge potential new audience including 1.3 billion of her compatriots and a region encompassing two-thirds of humanity.

China's Li Na who is playing her third Australian Open final is regarded as the hottest property in tennis, not just because of her ability, but because she has opened the door to the sport's future.

Women's Tennis Association (WTA) chief Stacey Allaster has put the 31-year-old front and centre of a concerted push into Asia including multiple new tournaments in China and the end-of-season championships in Singapore.

In September, Li Na's home city of Wuhan will host a new, premier-level tournament, one of six WTA events on Chinese soil this year.

So when Li Na takes aim at her second Grand Slam title, against Dominika Cibulkova in Saturday's Australian Open final, it's fair to say she'll have tacit support from the highest level.

Li Na was the cover girl for last year's Time magazine issue rating the world's 100 most influential people, and she is listed by Forbes as the globe's second highest-earning female athlete behind Sharapova.

After a fallow period following the 2011 French Open victory, when the distractions of sponsors and media drove her off her game, she has been reborn since teaming with coach Carlos Rodriguez in 2012.

Despite toying with the idea of retiring last year, because of poor results and press criticism, she has found the form of her life as she heads towards her 32nd birthday next month.

Li Na finished last season at world number three, the highest ever by an Asian player, and contested the final of the eight-player season climax, the WTA Championships in Turkey.

In Melbourne, she will have high hopes of becoming the first Asian winner of the tournament tagged "the Grand Slam of Asia-Pacific".

Much has been made of her brave and career-defining decision to opt out of China's rigid state sports system and go it alone, hiring her own coaches and controlling more of her winnings.

Often seen as a maverick, she also defied Chinese convention by getting a tattoo -- a red rose, on her chest -- and was prepared to ditch her husband, Jiang Shan, as coach in favour of Rodriguez.

She said the move not only resurrected her career, but also saved her marriage.

The Chinese system initially groomed Li Na for badminton, following in the footsteps of her father, who was a successful player. But she was switched to tennis, against her wishes, at the age of nine.

"At the time, tennis was not so popular in China. After my family saw the court, they said, 'okay, we'll change'. I was like, 'why didn't you ask me?'" she recalled later.

Li Na's father passed away when she was 14, and she briefly gave up tennis in her early twenties to study journalism, frustrated by her inability to reach the main draw of Grand Slams.

A plea to play in a national competition reignited her passion for the game, and she became part of the vanguard of Chinese women's players who broke new ground over the past decade.

In 2004, she became the first Chinese woman to win a WTA title, in Guangzhou, and later she was the first to reach a Grand Slam quarter-final, at 2006 Wimbledon, and the first Chinese player to break the top 10.

Li Na's breakthrough season was 2011, when she won in Sydney before reaching the Australian Open final, which she led before tearfully going down to Kim Clijsters.

However, she would have just months to wait for a historic Grand Slam title and in June, she edged gritty Italian Francesca Schiavone in two tight sets to lift the French Open title.

Li Na, standing at 1.72m may seem like a giant to the diminutive Dominikia Cibulkova who's also known as the "pocket rocket" and the "energizer bunny".

The Slovak, at 1.61m, is the smallest player in the top 50 and if she beats China's Li Na in the Australian Open final she will become the shortest ever Grand Slam champion.

Clearly height matters little in tennis, with Cibulkova dismantling the game of statuesque Russian Maria Sharapova, en route to the decider at Melbourne Park.

"It's not about how tall you are. Even if you are tall, it doesn't mean that you are 100 per cent going to make it," said Cibulkova, who was inspired by former world number three Amanda Coetzer, another shortie, when growing up.

"It's just you have to really want something and just believe in it. There is nothing more important than this."

Cibulkova is the tournament surprise package, using her power off the ground and relentless running to muscle through the draw where she has also beaten fifth seed Agnieszka Radwanska and 11th seed Simona Halep.

It is a big turnaround from last year, when she won only four matches at the four Grand Slams. So far in Melbourne she has won six, dropping just one set along the way.

The drive to the final is a big achievement for a player with just three titles to her name and a career-high ranking of 12 four-and-a-half years ago.

The 24-year-old has been playing tennis since she was seven, introduced to the game by parents Milan and Katarina in their home town Bratislava.

She turned professional in 2004, aged 15, earning $133 in her first tournament in Prague. A win on Saturday will net her a cool $2.65 million.

Her breakthrough year was 2008, when she made her first two WTA singles finals and cracked the top 20 for the first time.

But it wasn't until 2011 that she got on the winners' podium, taking the title in Moscow and following it up with another one in Carlsbad in 2012 and then Stanford last year.

While she has reached the last eight at all of the Grand Slams, including the semi-finals at the 2009 French Open, Cibulkova has had to wait until now to go one step further.

"It's in me. I was born with it. It's my gift," she said of her energy levels. "I've had it since I was a little kid. When I play my best tennis, that's where you can see like the power and the fight.

"You know, you have to have something extra if you want to be one of the best tennis players and you are not the tallest. This is what is my extra."

Cibulkova also has good movement and is consistent from the back of the court.

"I like to play as a bit of a counter-puncher. I think I'm quicker than the tallest players and I try to use that to my advantage."

Now coached by Slovak Fed Cup captain Matej Liptak, she is bidding to become her country's first Grand Slam champion and plans to use her ceaseless energy to beat the experienced Li Na.


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