Chinese sporting hero Li Na overcame early jitters to defeat Slovakia's Dominika Cibulkova 7-6 (7-3), 6-0 in Saturday night's Australian Open final, a victory that cements her place in tennis history.
The late bloomer finally lifted up the trophy at this major hard-court event after losing in the final in 2011 and 2013, finding her game after winning a tight first set to cruise to her second Grand Slam title.
Li, who will turn 32 on Feb. 26, became the fourth player to win this event after saving a match point, a feat also accomplished by Monica Seles (1991), Jennifer Capriati (2002) and Serena Williams (2003 and 2005).
The Chinese star was one point away from defeat in her third-round match against Czech Lucie Safarova, but she rallied for a 1-6, 7-6 (7-2), 6-3 win.
She also joined a group of just seven other women who have won a Grand Slam title in the Open Era after the age of 30: Serena Williams (4), Margaret Court (3), Martina Navratilova (3), Billie Jean King (2), Anna Jones (1), Virginia Wade (1) and Chris Evert (2).
Li jumped out to a 2-0 lead against an opponent who was competing in her first Grand Slam final and clearly rattled by the big occasion.
But Li then started to show some nerves herself, committing a barrage of unforced errors to hand back the service break in the set, which came down to a tiebreaker.
The world No. 4 played aggressively but under control to take that "breaker" handily, and that proved to be the key turning point in the contest.
After needing an hour and 10 minutes to win the first set, Li drastically reduced her unforced-error count and began swinging away freely and firing forehand and backhand winners to all parts of the court to take the second set in a "bagel."
She wrapped up victory in one hour and 27 minutes when Cibulkova, the No. 20 seed, sent a ground stroke over the baseline.
In an entertaining post-match press conference, the world No. 4 had the crowd laughing non-stop with remarks about her husband and agent.
"Max, agent, make me rich, thanks a lot" she deadpanned.
She then said of her husband: "You're famous in China. Thanks him with everything, traveling with me as my hitting partner. Fixes my drink, fixes my racquet ... So thanks a lot, you're a nice guy ... also, you're so lucky."
Li won the tournament without facing any of the tournament's top 16 seeds, her path cleared when world No. 1 Serena Williams, world No. 2 Victoria Azarenka and third-ranked Maria Sharapova were upset.
She lost the Australian Open final in 2011 to Belgium's Kim Clijsters and last year to Azarenka, both times in three sets.
Li's other major championship came at the French Open in 2011, when she became the first Asian player to win a Grand Slam title.
Cibulkova, for her part, reached the final with wins over 16th-seeded Carla Suarez, third-seeded Maria Sharapova, 11th-seeded Simona Halep and fifth-seeded Agnieszka Radwanska.
The diminutive Slovak played an entertaining, aggressive style in her first six matches, but struggled to get any offense going in the final due to nerves and Li's power. EFE