Li Na (No. 4) and Dominika Cibulkova (No. 20) have bettered the field at the 2014 Australian Open to reach the women's final.
Cibulkova conquered a difficult path to secure the berth, taking down four Top 20 players—including Maria Sharapova (No. 3) and Agnieszka Radwanska (No. 5).
Nobody picked her to win this Grand Slam. After all, her best finish in Melbourne before 2014 came back in 2009 when she reached the fourth round. Furthermore, her success in 2014 has matched all of her previous victories at the Australian Open, as noted by ESPN Stats & Info:
Dominika Cibulkova: 6 matches won at this Australian Open equals total matches won in previous 5 Grand Slam appearances— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 23, 2014
But that hasn't stopped her from defying the odds.
For Li, reaching the final at Melbourne Park isn't surprising. This is her third Australian Open final in four years, and it could be her best chance to finally win the title.
"Last time was a little bit tough so I will try this time to make one more step," Li said, referring to her inability to finish the job in 2013, as noted by BBC.com. "I think after working with the coach, it's not only about my technique. I'm playing much stronger on court and more stable from the first point."
The two finalists have battled one another four times in the past—twice in the second round and twice in the quarterfinals of tournaments—with Li coming away with the victory all four times. Only one of the matches went past two sets, as Li has historically had Cibulkova's number.
Size could be a factor in this upcoming final.
Li measures in at 5'8" and is considered to be of average height—if not a bit short—when it comes to the world's top tennis stars. On the other hand, her opponent, at 5'3", has always had to work a bit harder than most of her peers to cover ground on the court.
WTA Tour player Chanda Rubin, via CNN.com's Ravi Ubha, recently discussed her own challenges as a 5'6" athlete going up against the other women on tour. She also talked about what Cibulkova has been able to do to conquer the challenge:
Obviously it's more difficult at times. 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.
2001 Wimbledon champion Goran Ivanisevic further elaborates on the subject, via Rubin: "Women's tennis is unpredictable. 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."
Based on Cibulkova's improbable run to this point, it would be foolish to count her out.
Since surrendering her first set to Sharapova in the fourth round, the Slovakian star has won six straight sets against three of the world's top players. She was relentless in her attack against Radwanska in the semifinals, making the No. 5 player in the world look out of shape in the process.
Which player will win?
Li brings her vast experience and considerable talents to the match, and she'll need all of it in order to conquer her challenger. Like Cibulkova, she's been playing outstanding tennis leading up to the final, having won eight sets in a row in her last four matches.
It's going to take nothing less than a stellar effort by the eventual champion to secure the title at Melbourne Park.
Follow me on Twitter @JesseReed78