To paraphrase George Orwell, in tennis, all points are equal, but some are more equal than others.
It is amazing how a three-set, three-hour marathon in the sweltering heat can turn on the tiniest moment: one fluffed volley on break point or one double fault in the tiebreak and suddenly the whole momentum of a match can change. What were once just seeds of doubt germinate and grow like dandelions after a rain shower, and the match is turned on its head.
Li Na’s whole Australian Open has been like that. Her dandelion moment came in the third round against Lucie Safarova when, facing match point and an ignominious exit, she was saved. Safarova missed the shot; Li was thrown a lifeline and now she is in the final.
“I think the five centimetres save my tournament,” Li said in her own, honest and blunt manner. “If she hit in, I think, whole team on the way to the airport. I really feeling after the match I was getting second life in this tournament.
“In China, we say if you have a tough time, you pass that, it means you be so lucky. Or maybe they give me back from last year, I don't know.”
Ah, yes; last year. Li was in the final then, too, and playing Victoria Azarenka. She was in the lead, winning the first set, and then fell over in the second and sprained her left ankle. After that was taped and she was up and hobbling, she fell over again – this time cracking the back of her head on the ground and almost giving herself concussion. Luck was certainly not on her side that day.
This year, though, the fates seem to be smiling on her, and since that match point against Safarova, Li has not dropped a set. In fact, she has hardly been pushed. Eugenie Bouchard gave her the most trouble in the semifinal but, even then, Li won in straight sets. Not that it seems to matter much to her – a match is a match is a match. The score is irrelevant; it is the winning that matters.
That approach, though, does become a little easier with age and with experience, and Saturday's final against the diminutive Dominika Cibulkova is her fourth Grand Slam final in all and her third one in Melbourne.
“For me, tennis score can be 6-1, can be 7-6. If you win, is win,” she said, matter-of-factly. “Doesn't matter how is the score. I think this is the third time, so I’ve been pretty close to the trophy. At least I try to not falling down this time, because last year in the final I think I play well but I only can say unlucky because falling down twice. At least I try enjoy and staying healthy.
“The first time I come to the final, I didn't have any experience. I just feel so excited. So when the problem is come to me, I cannot face it because nobody can help me. But as I was playing more and more, I got more experience. So right now final is special. Final is final, but still just one match. So I still have to hit the ball to try to do my best, yeah. I cannot wait for opponent make mistake.”
Already famous back home, reaching those four finals – and winning at the French Open in 2011 – launched her into a whole new level of superstardom. And for a woman whose greatest ambition is to become a housewife when she retires from tennis, this came as something of a shock. Bad enough that 1.35 billion Chinese are following her every move on court, now the same 1.35 billion are reading about her every move off-court in the local newspaper. That can cramp a girl’s style, even if that girl is as forthright and fearless as our Li.
“Now I feeling a lot of pressure,” she explained, “because so many children, they look you up to you, what you do on the court, off the court. I cannot say bad word, otherwise the children will copy. So many bad thing I cannot do. Even, sometimes, like we go to a party, we have a drink or something. The next day they put in newspaper, she like drink or something. But they didn't put the situation. So, yeah, after I was read the newspaper, I say, Okay, I cannot even drink when I'm in the party. I say, Okay, only water, healthy.”
So, the pressure is on for the former finalist and the role model for the whole of Asian tennis. She goes into the final as the obvious favourite: she has beaten Cibulkova four times out of four and she is used to being at the business end of major tournaments. The Slovak, on the other hand, has only once reached one Grand Slam semifinal and two quarterfinals to date. Admittedly, Cibulkova has been ripping through the seeds this past week (Maria Sharapova, Agnieszka Radwanska) but to do it again in her first major final? That is a big ask.
Li has a game plan that she has cooked up with Carlos Rodriguez, her coach, but she is keeping it to herself. All she will say is that the way to win is to keep it simple: “Just come to the court, just play, don't think too much,” she said. And if that tactic works on Saturday night, will she give Safarova a share of the prizemoney as thanks for setting her on her way to victory?
“I will send her a smile, you know,” Li said. “Is only thing I can do.”