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Australian Open: Size doesn't matter for Dominika Cibulkova

By Ravi Ubha, for CNN
updated 8:29 AM EST, Thu January 23, 2014
And then there were two...Dominika Cibulkova will meet Li Na in the Australian Open. And then there were two...Dominika Cibulkova will meet Li Na in the Australian Open.
Li, Cibulkova set for Melbourne showdown
Li, Cibulkova set for Melbourne showdown
Li, Cibulkova set for Melbourne showdown
Li, Cibulkova set for Melbourne showdown
Li, Cibulkova set for Melbourne showdown
Li, Cibulkova set for Melbourne showdown
  • Dominika Cibulkova beats Agnieszka Radwanska to reach a first grand slam final
  • Cibulkova crushes Radwanska 6-1 6-2 in an hour and 10 minutes to advance
  • At 5-foot-3, she would become the joint shortest grand slam singles winner in the Open Era
  • Li Na disposes of Eugenie Bouchard to achieve a third Australian Open final

Melbourne, Australia (CNN) -- Dominika Cibulkova is proving that, at the Australian Open anyway, size doesn't matter.

Cibulkova thumped Agnieszka Radwanska in the women's semifinals Thursday to move one match away from becoming the joint shortest grand slam singles winner in the Open Era.

The 5-foot-3-inch Cibulkova needed a mere one hour, 10 minutes to dispose of the world No. 5, winning 6-1 6-2 to set up an encounter Saturday against now three-time Australian Open finalist Li Na.

Li, the ouster of Canadian upstart Eugenie Bouchard 6-2 6-4, hasn't lost to Cibulkova in their four outings but the 20th seed will be buoyed by victories over former Wimbledon finalist Radwanska and four-time grand slam champion Maria Sharapova this fortnight.

Only a year ago on Australian soil in Sydney, Cibulkova didn't enjoy her time on court with Radwanska, handed a 6-0 6-0 double bagel defeat in the final of the Melbourne warmup event.

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Cibulkova is an anomaly in the current generation of women's tennis. A sparse three women in the top 100 -- American Lauren Davis and Japanese duo Misaki Doi and Kurumi Nara -- are shorter than Cibulkova.

Last year, the women's grand slam winners were all 5' 6" or taller. Li is just under 5' 8".

And since the Open Era began in 1968, no player shorter than 5' 3" has claimed a major. Nancy Richey and Mima Jausovec, the same height as Cibulkova, claimed the 1968 French Open and 1977 French Open, respectively.

"It's not about how tall you are," Cibulkova, 24, told reporters. "It's just you have to really believe in it. There is nothing more important than this."

According to seven-time tour winner Chanda Rubin, not a giant herself in tennis terms at 5' 6", Cibulkova limits weaknesses and generates ample power.

"Obviously it's more difficult at times," Rubin, who peaked at No. 6 in the world, told CNN. "You have to cover a lot more ground. You have to be quicker. You can't take a big step and cover half the court. You have that challenge.

"But when you see a player get to this level and see what she's achieved, it's because she's able to minimize any deficiencies and has those special skills -- the speed, the ability to create a little extra power even if she's not as tall, the ability to compete.

Indeed, Cibulkova isn't the type to solely retrieve. Her power baseline game can leave opponents bamboozled.

Cibulkova owns a 3-3 record against the 6' 2" Sharapova, has downed world No. 2 Victoria Azarenka twice and tallied 11 of the first 14 games against the Belorussian in Miami in 2012 before nerves -- missing in Melbourne this year, judging by her sojourn -- intervened.

Cibulkova attacked Radwanska's second serve, winning 14 of 16 points.

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Radwanska had beaten Azarenka on Wednesday to snap a seven-match losing streak against the two-time Australian Open champion.

"I feel like in slow motion today," Radwanska told reporters.

Cibulkova said she wouldn't significantly alter her pre-match routine ahead of a maiden appearance in a grand slam final. The same could be said of her coach, Matej Liptak.

He declined to be interviewed because he hasn't spoken to reporters during the Australian Open and didn't want to jinx his charge.

"I'm a little bit superstitious," he told CNN, while being congratulated by Czech-born tennis legend Martina Navratilova.

Li raced to a 5-0 lead against 19-year-old Bouchard, the second Canadian player to make a grand slam singles semifinal, in about 15 minutes thanks to an array of winning shots and despite a wobble in the second set, advanced comfortably.

She is bidding to win a second major following her success at the 2011 French Open.

Even if the form book favors Li, 2001 Wimbledon champion Goran Ivanisevic wasn't counting Cibulkova out.

"Women's tennis is unpredictable," he told CNN. "From 15 matches I predicted I got them all wrong.

"If she can play tennis like she did today, it's impressive. It doesn't matter if she's 7-foot or 5-foot-3. She hits the ball so hard, it's good."

Third time lucky?

However, Serena Williams' coach Patrick Mouratoglou is backing Li to make up for her 2011 and 2013 Melbourne defeats.

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"It's the first time she plays a grand slam final being favorite," the Frenchman told CNN. "She's the one who's supposed to win, she's playing a player who's much lower ranked than she is. The pressure is going to be much higher than what it usually is for her.

"On the other hand she has more experience. I liked the way she played this semifinal -- she handled it really well, which she couldn't do in the past.

"She served really, really well and the way she started the match was very surprising -- so aggressive from the start, she hit so many winners.

"It reminded me of Mike Tyson when he was boxing, stepping into the ring and 'boom boom boom.' It was like an uppercut to the chin and it took her (Bouchard) a long time to recover from that start. If she manages to start the same way in the final she's going to take a huge advantage.

"The second thing she did really well was the return, she was very aggressive. I think Bouchard won around 15% of the points on her second serve, which is really low.

"Cibulkova's serve is in a little way a weakness because she is a short player, so if she manages to do the same then there will be a lot of pressure on her opponent."

Injury worries

Mouratoglou said world No. 1 Williams is still recovering from the back injury she suffered ahead of her third-round match against Daniela Hantuchova, which also hampered her in the subsequent defeat by Ana Ivanovic.

"Her back is still bothering her," he said. "I don't think it's too bad but it's very annoying -- she couldn't really express herself in the last two matches she played at the Australian Open.

"She needs more time and needs to see doctors in America and Europe, doctors who know her really well, to sort it out. I don't think it's bad, I think it's a matter of one week."

Mouratoglou said Williams, who suffered an ankle injury in Melbourne last year ahead of her shock quarterfinal exit, would use the loss to Ivanovic to motivate her for the rest of the new season.

"She hates losing so much, she's so competitive, in a way that's the best motive," he said of the American, who took her haul of grand slam titles to 17 in 2013.

"Sometimes it's good for her to have a few losses, it brings her back to even harder work."

In the men's draw, Stanislas Wawrinka is into the first grand slam final of his career after defeating seventh seed Tomas Berdych 6-3 6-7 (1-7) 7-6 (7-3) 7-6 (7-4).

The eighth seed, who beat triple defending champion Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals, had never previously gone beyond the last eight at Melbourne Park.

Sunday's final could see Switzerland's Wawrinka come up against his friend and compatriot Roger Federer, with the 17-time grand slam winner facing world No. 1 Rafael Nadal on Friday.

Wawrinka and Federer won men's doubles gold together at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.

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