When it comes to tennis, Dominika Cibulkova knows something about the meaning of a bad day at the office.
In the Sydney International final before last year’s Australian Open, she suffered the ultimate humiliation – a 6-0 6-0 loss to Agnieszka Radwanska.
It was painful to watch, but Cibulkova is nothing if not resilient. She achieved ultimate redemption 12 months later – after going 1-1 in subsequent 2013 meetings with Radwanska – by thrashing the Pole 6-1 6-2 in the semifinals on Thursday to reach her first Grand Slam final.
The 24-year-old Slovak is strong-willed. When she gets an idea in her head, she can move mountains – or at least former Hopman Cup tournament director Paul McNamee. In 2009, she was determined to play the event partly because she wanted one of the diamond-encrusted tennis balls awarded to the winners. Her male partner, Dominik Hrbaty, was ranked about 150 and McNamee felt they didn’t rate. But Cibulkova persisted, insisting that Slovakia had twice before (1998 and 2005) won the Hopman Cup. McNamee finally relented.
The happy ending was that Slovakia got in as the last of eight teams. Cibulkova won all her singles and doubles matches, and combined with Hrbaty to defeat top-seeded Russia (world No. 2 Dinara Safina and brother Marat) in the final. Cibulkova (the name means “little onion”) got that diamond-encrusted tennis ball.
Her opponent in Saturday night’s final is also no shrinking violet. Li Na had the independence of mind to challenge Chinese tennis officialdom, demanding that she be able to, on her own, train, travel and keep her prizemoney.
Last year, Forbes Magazine estimated the 31-year-old with the winsome sense of humour and a power-backed backhand earned US$18 million. On Thursday, she brought down the house at her media conference, joking about her hometown, “(Wuhan) they say small town, not so many people – just like 10 million.”
Li is in her fourth Grand Slam final – winning the 2011 French Open and finishing as runner-up at the 2011 and 2013 Aussie Opens.
In 25 previous Grand Slams, the diminutive (161cm) Slovak’s best was a 2009 Roland Garros semifinal. Cibulkova and Li have played four times since 2008, Li winning all four meetings.
Both have been on fire. Since saving a match point against Lucie Safarova in the third round – on a Safarova ball just five millimetres long – Li has won three matches for the loss of just 12 games against Ekaterina Makarova, Flavia Pennetta and Eugenie Bouchard.
“I was really feeling after the (Safarova) match I was getting a second life in this tournament,” she said. “In China, we say if you have a tough time and you pass it, it means you be so lucky. Or maybe they pay me back from last year (when she fell and bumped her head twice on the court during the final against Azarenka).”
In Cibulkova’s four matches bracketing her fourth-round 3-6 6-4 6-1 upset of Maria Sharapova, she has lost an average of just two games per match.
Her 2009 Hopman Cup partner Hrbaty texted on Thursday, “she is already in history. She needs two more sets to be a legend.” And to be the first person from her nation of 5.5 million to win a Grand Slam singles title.
So, two strong women should ensure a gripping final, with Li likely to be the crowd favourite in The Grand Slam of Asia-Pacific.
TOM’S INTREPID TIP
Li vs Cibulkova
Both players have been almost untouchable in their most recent matches and are playing so well it’s tough to select a winner. But Li has to be the pick because she’s 4-0 head-to-head against Cibulkova, and has the experience of three previous Grand Slam finals. Li in two.