- Associated Press - Thursday, January 23, 2014

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) - This will be Li Na’s third time in the Australian Open final and her goal, she half-jokes, is to not fall down. For Dominika Cibulkova, the game plan is to enjoy the moment that she describes as a beautiful dream coming true.

The No. 4-seeded Li is the favorite to win Saturday’s final, based on her ranking, her experience and the fact that she already has won a major - the 2011 French Open. But the past two weeks have proven that there is nothing predictable about this year’s Australian Open.

After a tournament of upsets, the championship is marked by who’s not in it: No. 1 Serena Williams, a winner of 17 majors; No. 2 Victoria Azarenka, the two-time defending champion; and No. 3 Maria Sharapova, the four-time Grand Slam winner who was beaten in the fourth round by the unheralded but highly energetic Cibulkova.

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Playing as the underdog has suited 20th-seeded Cibulkova. The 24-year-old has won all but one of her matches in straight sets, including three in just an hour or less.

The diminutive Slovakian who stands at a mere 1.61 meters (5-foot-3) has endeared herself to the crowds at Melbourne Park with a ferocious fighting spirit on-court and heartfelt comments afterward.

“I still can’t believe I’m playing finals. I can’t believe this is happening,” Cibulkova told the Rod Laver Arena crowd on Thursday after another upset in the semifinals over 2012 Wimbledon finalist Agnieszka Radwanska. When Cibulkova hit the last forehand winner, she threw her racket into the air, fell flat on her back and then buried her hands in her face.

Later at a post-match news conference, she blinked back tears.

“It will be the biggest match of my life,” said Cibulkova. “It’s a big pressure. Still I want to enjoy it on the court. I don’t want to suffer on the court.”

“It’s something beautiful. It’s like a dream.”

The 31-year-old Li knows what it’s like to suffer during a final in Melbourne.

Last year, she twisted her ankle and fell over twice before losing the 2013 Australian Open final to Azarenka. On the second tumble she fell and hit the back of her head on the hard court, needing on-court treatment by a tournament doctor who assessed her for a concussion as the crowd watched.

“At least I’ll try to not fall down this time,” Li said Thursday after beating Canadian teen Eugenie Bouchard 6-2, 6-4. “Last year in the final, I think I played well, but I only can say I was unlucky because falling down twice.”

Li’s sense of humor which shines through broken English in on-court interviews has made her one of the perennial crowd favorites in Melbourne. She often makes wise cracks about her husband and former coach. After the quarterfinals Li said she considers her tennis rackets as members of the family and has named them: Li Na 1, Li Na 2 all the way up to Li Na 8.

Looking ahead to the final, Li said she expects a tough match because she and Cibulkova have similar tennis styles. They’re both fast, powerful and cover the court with speed.

“She has pretty fast legs on the court,” said Li, who has a 4-0 lead against Cibulvoka in head-to-head matches. “Yeah, We play pretty similar. So, tough match. Another challenge.”

In China, Li said, there is a belief that tough times in the past means good luck ahead.

So does Li feel lucky at the Australian Open this year?

“Until now, yes,” she said.

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