Aside from Rafael Nadal reaching the final on the men's side, very little has gone according to script for the women during the 2014 Australian Open. As a result, the women's final features 2011 French Open champion Li Na taking on first-time major finalist Dominika Cibulkova.
Li's appearance in the championship match isn't a shock considering this will be her third final in four years in the season's first major. Yet, the fact Serena Williams, Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova were all eliminated before the semifinals was a surprise.
Which player will capture the Aussie Open title?
Even though the final lacks star power without someone from that trio of superstars, it should be a great match between the battle-tested Li and a player in Cibulkova who's been on fire in the second week. So let's check out all the viewing information and then preview the title clash.
Where: Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne, Australia
When: Saturday, Jan. 25 at 3:30 a.m. ET (8:30 a.m. GMT; 7:30 p.m. local)
Live Stream: ESPN3.com
The matchup between No. 4 Li and No. 20 Cibulkova is an interesting one because there are two completely different ways to view the match.
If you consider their respective track records, the Chinese star is a clear favorite. As mentioned, she's reached this point at the Australian Open two times before and already has a major championship on her resume from the French Open.
She also holds a clear edge over Cibulkova in head-to-head matches. Li has won all four of their prior meetings, as ESPN Stats & Info points out, and has only dropped one set against her fellow finalist:
Looking ahead to the Australian Open women's final: Li Na is 4-0 career vs Dominika Cibulkova (this will be their 1st Grand Slam meeting)— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 23, 2014
While those factors seem to point toward a significant advantage for Li, they don't tell the whole story. Cibulkova has played some of the best tennis of her career over the past two weeks, and that must be taken into account.
The 24-year-old Slovakian rising star entered the tournament as an afterthought. She opened with a tricky match against Francesca Schiavone, but she cleared that hurdle with ease and has been on fire ever since. Her only dropped set came against Sharapova.
Aside from the triumph over Sharapova, she also scored straight-set wins over three other ranked opponents (Agnieszka Radwanska, Simona Halep and Carla Suarez Navarro) en route to the final.
Cibulkova is a player who runs hot and cold, and right now she's enjoying one of her hot streaks. It helps level the playing field against the more accomplished Li.
The deciding factor will likely be which player is more efficient when serving as the aggressor. They have both been pretty close to even in terms of winner-to-error ratio. When you add in the nerves associated with a major final, the result could be a lot of mistakes—especially early.
That's where Li's experience in these types of situations should come in handy. Her previous trip to the Australian Open final just last year should have her better prepared for the moment. Cibulkova has never had to deal with this type of pressure.
Also, the favored No. 4 seed has tinkered with her game to help her get over the hump after losses in the two prior finals, as she noted to Douglas Robson of USA Today: "You stay on the tour so many years, everyone know exactly the way you are playing. I really want to improve myself. That's why I change. Maybe it's the wrong thing….But if you (don't) try to change you never know. You (don't) find the answer."
All told, this has the feeling of a match that could very well go the distance. In the end, however, it's hard to pick against Li in this spot despite Cibulkova's strong play. The third time will be a charm for the veteran from China.
Prediction: Li Na in three sets