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Victory at Australian Open brings relief to Li Na and her long-suffering husband Jiang Shang

Sunday, 26 January 2014 - 12:26pm IST Updated: Sunday, 26 January 2014 - 12:30pm IST | Agency: Daily Telegraph
Chinese finds her range to see off Slovak 7-6, 6-0 Champion amuses crowd after winning third final.

China has finally won "the slam of Asia/Pacific", as the Australian Open likes to brand itself. Of course the fans would have preferred a first home-grown champion since Christine O'Neil in 1978, but Li Na is hugely popular here, and she brought the house down yesterday (Saturday) with her acceptance speech. "Max - agent - made me rich," she started, before turning to the regular butt of her jokes, husband Jiang Shang.

"Thanks to my husband, now so famous in China. He's my hitting partner, fixes the drinks, fixes the rackets. You do a lot of jobs. Thanks a lot. You are a nice guy. You were lucky to find me." How different from last year's final, when Li tripped over her own feet twice in the course of her loss to Victoria Azarenka, and had to be checked for concussion after smacking her head on the court.

At the conclusion, master of ceremonies Sandy Gordon showed the tact and sensitivity for which Australians are famed as he roared "Let's hear it for the runner-up: she's battered, she's bruised and she's quite possibly b------d." This year's match presented a very different challenge, for while Li was the underdog in 2013, yesterday brought her up against the most unheralded grand slam finalist for many years - perhaps even since the Australian Open was a tinpot provincial event in the late 1970s.

At 5ft 3in and No24 in the world, Dominika Cibulkova would have been an even more unlikely grand slam champion than her close friend Marion Bartoli. She might have knocked out Maria Sharapova in the fourth round but she has negligible experience of contesting the big events. Her CV lists three trophies in second-tier events at Moscow, Carlsbad and Stanford. On the court, both these players follow a similar template: speedy footwork on the baseline, heavy groundstrokes and a high tempo.

The difference is that Li has a world-beating backhand and a bigger serve. She knew the title was there for the taking if she could simply do her thing as if it were any normal day, rather than her third Australian Open final. Yet this proved to be beyond her in the first half-hour of the match. After three service games, an error-prone Li had landed just two first serves and was committing enough errors to resemble a club player whose mind was on the next day's sales meeting.

The quality of the tennis was dreadful, particularly when compared to the exhibitions staged by the likes of Rafael Nadal, Stan Wawrinka and Roger Federer in recent days. Like fans of UFC, we found ourselves watching a choking contest. After sending down her second double-fault, Li gave her long-suffering husband a death stare and waggled the racket in her hand as if to suggest there was something wrong with it. Jiang is clearly used to such tantrums as he simply raised his hands in the air in the universal gesture for: "What on Earth are you going on about?"

Li managed to bring up set point at 5-4 in the first set, only to waste it when she blasted her favourite backhand wide of the sideline. But when the tie-break started, she suddenly found her game. Three winners fizzed off her racket to establish a stranglehold, and from that moment the tightness seemed to leave her racket arm. If Li's first-set performance was shaky, you could only admire her domination of the second as she closed out a 7-6, 6-0 victory in just 27 more minutes. Now the whole game was flowing: serves, winners, even a couple of sallies to the net from this confirmed baseliner.

Even though she is the oldest winner of this tournament, at 32, Li has been prepared to add new wrinkles to her game under the guidance of Justine Henin's former coach Carlos Rodriguez. "Before come to the court I was tell myself: 'Just play your game. Don't think about the final'," Li said. "But the situation, you cannot thinking this is normal match. Final is the final. Beginning was little bit tough. But I think I start when the tie-break start. I was thinking: 'OK, now you have to go, otherwise it's very tough for you'."

The irony of Li's successful partnership with Rodriguez is that he nearly broke her in the first three days of training. He wanted her to change the grip on both her serve and her backhand - a bold switch for a player who had already won a grand slam, the 2011 French Open. It must have been a smart call, for the serve and the backhand have been the pillars of her success here.

"When first time I have the training with Carlos, I think: 'OK, no more'," Li said. "But choice was right, because if I really want to prove myself, I have to change something, otherwise I will stay the same level forever. When I say I want to be top three, nobody believe. Beginning this year I say, I want to win another grand slam, nobody believe. More important is I believe, Carlos believe, my team believe. That's all."

Watch Li Na's hilarious speech after her win in which she thanks her husband:


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