It was hard to imagine a sportsperson under more pressure than Li Na on Saturday.
You wouldn’t have known it from her post-match interviews, of course, but the weight of expectation was enormous. Known as Big Sister Na in a country that hitherto couldn’t give two hoots about tennis, her popularity knows no bounds. When she won the 2011 French Open, an estimated 116 million Chinese tuned in. Heaven knows how many more watched on Saturday night.
She also has standards to live up to. In recent years, she has been rebuked by China’s state run news agency for her apparent churlishness and individualism. The People’s Daily editorialised: “when star athletes’ personalities have become insufferable by the standards of social customs and traditions, who is to rein in their unchecked insolence?” Bernie Tomic should consider himself fortunate he doesn’t operate out of Beijing.
Na was pushed into the state run sports system at the age of five and it’s been a rocky road ever since. Her temper, her tendency to bicker with her husband and former coach and her reputation for unravelling in pressure situations are legendary. She lost two Australian Open finals after coughing up first set leads. What’s more, unlike her previous Slam finals, everyone expected her to win tonight. She went in as an almost unbackable favourite, always an ominous sign.
Her opponent was a Slovakian bolter who can barely see over the net. But she plays a robust, high-risk game that has blown away a string of higher ranked players. This fortnight, she had lost one of thirteen sets.
Cibulkova is unusual in that she pumps her fist and gees herself up after pretty much every point, even the ones she loses. And she did a lot of that early on, with the first set characterised by nerves, service breaks, double faults, net chords and unforced errors.
Invariably described as ‘diminutive’, ‘plucky’ or ‘giant killing’, the most apt adjective for the Slovakian is probably ‘bulletproof.’ She plays with no fear. Every time she stuffs up, she simply swings harder.
Having cultivated a more attacking game under new coach Carlos Rodriguez, Na nonetheless played conservatively tonight, seeking to force her opponent into error. In the tie-break however, she turned up the wick, reeling off a string of winners off both wings.
A set to the good, she may have cast her mind back to both the 2011 Open – where Kim Clijsters ran over the top of her – and last year’s event, where she very nearly knocked herself unconscious in the deciding set. But she held her nerve.
A break point down on her opening service game, Cibulkova sprayed a wild forehand. Eschewing the fist pump, she instead berated herself and whacked the ball into the crowd. Na had the break and a fast track to the title.
By now, Cibulkova wasn’t so much bulletproof as out of ammo. Her boyfriend, a dead ringer for Collingwood footballer Dane Swan, could only shrug his shoulders.
Na would romp home to a 7-6, 6-0 win. Her celebration was subdued by Grand Slam standards but her achievement was monumental. At 31, she had reinvented herself, rejuvenated the women’s game and made a very big nation very happy indeed.