Li, who turns 32 next month, lost Australian Open finals to Kim Clijsters in 2011 and to Victoria Azarenka last year. In between, she won the 2011 French Open to become the first Chinese woman to win a major.
In both her previous finals at Melbourne Park, Li won the first set but went down in three. Against Azarenka last year, she stumbled and twisted her ankle, and needed a medical timeout in the third set after hitting her head on the court.
She had no such trouble against No. 20-seeded Cibulkova this time after winning the first set in a tiebreaker.
Li is popular at Melbourne Park, with her funny post-match interviews and remarks about her husband frequently drawing laughs.
She had the crowd laughing hysterically again in her victory speech when she first thanked her agent, Max, for making her rich and then thanked her husband for being a hitting partner, baggage handler and general helper — as well as being lucky enough to marry her.
“I think of course (I was) nervous, but also excited,” she said. “I played a final here twice already, so I know the feeling.”
Li’s supporters were everywhere at Rod Laver Arena, some with Chinese flags painted on their faces, others holding Chinese flags or giant signs painted with Chinese characters.
Her fans got her through the nervous first set, chanting, “Li Na, Let’s Go,” in Mandarin during every changeover.
As Li began to roll in the second set, someone yelled — before Cibulkova served — “C’mon Li Na, bagel her!”
Li broke Cibulkova, held, and then had a breakpoint in the third game. Cibulkova held, and then broke Li in the sixth game thanks to consecutive double-faults. Li broke in the 11th game and had a set point in the 12th, but lost three straight points to ensure it went to the tiebreaker.
After rolling through the second set in 27 minutes, Li held up both thumbs to the crowd, and held back tears. She went immediately to the side of the court to shake hands with her coach Carlos Rodriguez in the stands.
The diminutive Cibulkova, one of the shortest players ever to reach a Grand Slam final at 1.61-meters (5-foot-3), had four wins over Top 20 players in the tournament, including a fourth-round upset of third-seeded Maria Sharapova and a straight-sets semifinal trouncing of No. 5 Agnieszka Radwanska.
She had to pull the microphone down closer to her before her post-match speech.
“These were just fantastic two weeks of my life,” she said, pausing to laugh and cry. “Hello to everybody in Slovakia. This means a lot for our country and I’m happy I can be
the one here for Slovakia.”
No. 4-ranked Li, who reportedly has more followers on social networking than there are people in Slovakia, had a good run through the tournament as other star players tumbled out in the earlier rounds.
She opened with wins over the two youngest players in the tournament, then saved a match point in her third-round win over Lucie Safarova. In the semifinals, she held off 19-year-old Canadian Eugenie Bouchard, and never had to face a player ranked in the top 20 en route to the final.
“Finally I got her,” Li said as she put a hand on the Daphne Akhurst trophy for the first time as Australian Open women’s champion. “Last two times was very close.”