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Li Na: Champion for the ages

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Seven months after threatening to quit tennis to be a humble housewife, Chinese trailblazer Li Na has become the oldest Australian Open women’s champion in more than 40 years instead.

Fourth-seeded Li ended the giantkilling run of Slovakian Dominika Cibulkova with a steely 7-6 (7-3) 6-0 victory in Saturday night’s final at Melbourne Park.

A month shy of her 32nd birthday, Li is 17-and-a-half months older than Australian great Margaret Smith Court was when she won the last of her 11 national championships in 1973.

Apart from breaking down age barriers, Li’s historic triumph at the so-called “Grand Slam of Asia-Pacific” is certain to inspire another generation of Chinese children to pick up a racquet.

Already a megastar in her homeland after becoming China’s first-ever grand slam singles champion at the 2011 French Open, Li has led the surge of Asians taking up the game throughout her decade-long career.

But the world No.4 admitted she was ready to give it all up herself after a second-round defeat at Roland Garros last May – before changing her mind after a heart-to-heart with coach Carlos Rodriguez.

“Before Wimbledon, I talk to Carlos and say ‘I think I have no confidence. I want out’,” Li said.

“Life always has a challenge. You just have to face up to it.”

Now that she has in spectacular style, Li joins a distinguished list of 30-something grand slam champions including legends Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert, Billie-Jean King and current world No.1 Serena Williams.

While Li is the oldest Open winner in the professional era, Cibulkova had been striving to become Slovakia’s first-ever major champion – and the sport’s shortest in 45 years.

But after knocking over top-five pair Maria Sharapova and Agnieszka Radwanksa en route to her maiden grand slam final, the 161cm surprise packet ultimately fell one win shy of a fairytale triumph.

Li’s victory – which earned her a grand slam-record $2.65 million – will also ease the pain of losing two previous finals in Melbourne, to Victoria Azarenka last year and to Kim Clijsters in 2011, both in three sets.

And after saving a match point in the third round against Lucie Safarova, the often temperamental baseliner had to show great resolve once more in the title match.

After starting confidently to lead the first-time grand slam finalist, the fourth seed coughed up two wild double-faults in a row to hand Cibulkova a break back in the sixth game.

Perhaps feeling the pressure of favouritism, the slip-up precipitated a raft of unforced errors, mostly off her least preferred forehand wing.

Even after breaking Cibulkova for a second time, Li was unable to serve out the set, repeatedly struggling with her ball toss and wasting a set point with a backhand wide and allowing the 20th seed to force a tiebreak.

But she held her nerve to take the tense 70-minute set when Cibulkova dumped a backhand into the net.

Li also led Clijsters and Azarenka by a set to love in her two previous finals, but there would be no disappointment third time around as the veteran rolled through the second set in 27 minutes.

“Finally I can guard her. Last two times it was very close,” Li said after raising the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup.

“This is my favourite grand slam. I’m so happy I can win the title here, so I cannot wait and looking forward to coming back.”

The newly-crowned champion will climb to No.3 in the world behind Williams and dethroned titleholder Victoria Azarenka when the new rankings are released on Monday, while Cibulkova will jump from 24th to 13th.

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