MELBOURNE, Australia -- It was Li Na's tournament to win. The higher seeds tumbled around her; she escaped a match point when her third-round opponent hit a ball just inches behind the baseline; and she was facing a first-time Grand Slam finalist who had never beaten Li.
But it looked as if it might not all work out for Li as she fought herself every bit as much as Dominika Cibulkova inside Rod Laver Arena on Saturday night.
Even winning the first set in a tiebreaker guaranteed nothing. Li had won the first set of her two previous finals here only to go on and lose the match.
But sometimes good things come to those who simply deserve it, in this case a 31-year-old fan favorite who considered retirement six months ago in the face of harsh criticism in her home country of China and even bigger self-doubt.
That she stuck it out then says as much about Li as how she persevered Saturday night to win her second Grand Slam title, 7-6(3), 6-0 over a 5-foot-3 counterpuncher who is nobody's pushover.
"I trusted myself," said Li, the first Asian champion of the tournament they call the Grand Slam of Asia/Pacific. Indeed, it was as important to shaking off her own early tightness as it was to solve Cibulkova.
Although Li had not played anyone in the tournament ranked higher than No. 20 Cibulkova, she had not lost a singles final to a lower-ranked player since 2009, and this would not be the first time.
Trailing 4-3 in the first set after a spate of unforced errors, particularly on the forehand side, and three loose games, including Cibulkova's service break in the sixth game, Li continued going for her shots, which began to find their mark. Li finally started to relax, which only made her more dangerous.
Although Cibulkova broke Li to force a tiebreaker, Li had already begun teeing off on second-serve returns, winning 14 of 19 second-serve points in the first set and all five chances in the second.
In the second set, Li, who got 78 percent of her first serves in and won 71 percent, lost just six points on serve. Just as telling, Li had a 34-11 advantage in winners for the match.
"She was the one who was dictating the game," said Cibulkova, the first Slovak to reach an Australian Open final. "Today, I can only regret that my serve was not really there. Then she could push me from the first balls and I was under pressure all the times. Sometimes, I catch myself running one meter behind the baseline. That's not how I play. This is why she was better."
At 31, Li is only the second Australian Open champion over 30 after Margaret Court, who won at 30 in 1973. With the title, Li will move up to No. 3 in the world when next week's rankings come out, displacing Maria Sharapova, who lost to Cibulkova here in the fourth round. Cibulkova, who notched four victories over players in the top 20 en route to the final, will see her ranking shoot up from 24th to 13th.
For Li, next in her sights is No. 2 Victoria Azarenka, who won here the previous two years but was knocked out in the quarters by Agnieszka Radwanksa.
"Yeah, why not? Of course," Li quipped.
For Cibulkova, who had a history of upsetting higher-ranked players only to lose to opponents she should beat, she said that there's no reason she can't win a Grand Slam title one day but that she might have to be patient.
"I think it takes time, you know? It's not that easy," she said. "When I played my first semifinals of a Grand Slam, I just went on the court. I was 19 years old. I was just, like, happy I'm already there, and I was not fighting for the finals. Now I know how is it to play the finals.
"I'm not saying it was the same today, but I think you have to go through some things to learn, you know. "
Li certainly understands that feeling, having waited three years between winning the French Open title and now.
"Of course, it is very easy to say I want to win another one," she said. "But I think, if you are tennis athlete, you have to know how much working has to be done to only win [one] Grand Slam. So, of course, if I want to win another one or two, I have to go back to the court working hard and also even more tough than before. Otherwise, no chance."
Li emerges from this tournament that much more popular with fans and fellow players alike, her charm coming as naturally as a sense of humor that cuts easily through the language barrier.
After the victory, she thanked her agent, Max Eisenbud, who also represents Sharapova, for "making me rich" and her husband, Dennis, for "fixing drinks and being a nice guy. Also, you're so lucky to find me."
Of Lucie Safarova, who surrendered that third-round match point? "I think I should send email to her," Li said. "And send smile to her, as well.
All told, Li did not seem as excited as relieved at match point. She explained why:
"When she serve, it was like 15-40," she recalled. "I was thinking, 'OK, after I win match, what should I do?' It's amazing; I am already thinking about that. But after that, I lose the point, so I'm like, 'OK, don't think. Just focus on this point.'"
Even Cibulkova seemed genuinely happy for her.
"I have to say," she said, "[Li's] one of the nicest players on tour. I really like her. I think everybody likes her sense of humor.
"She's a great player and a grand champion."