By Jaclyn Stacey
(January 26, 2013) MELBOURNE PARK, Australia – Victoria Azarenka successfully defended her Australian Open title on Saturday at Melbourne Park after triumphing over Li Na in a drama filled final 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 in two hours and 40 minutes.
In a bizarre display of ankle rolls, near concussions, fireworks delays, 85 unforced errors, 16 breaks of serve and some scintillating tennis, it was Azarenka who remained focused and determined in claiming the championship and in doing so will also hold on to her number one ranking come Monday. Azarenka also becomes the eighth different women’s champion to successfully defend the title in the Open Era.
Azarenka received a lukewarm reception from the crowd on the back of her controversial semifinal clash against Sloane Stephens in which she has been widely accused of gamesmanship after taking a questionable Medical Timeout in the critical stages of the second set. With the crowd firmly in the favor of the Chinese, it was a subdued Azarenka who dropped her racquet upon winning the match, shook hands with Li at the net and subsequently broke down into her towel with relief. There were no big celebrations and Azarenka avoided the aforementioned topic in her acceptance speech, choosing to play it safe and thank her team, the tournament organizers and Li.
“I feel really happy right now. It’s been a long match. It’s been a tough match. Li Na was absolutely playing great tennis. Unfortunate things that happened to her, you know, but that’s sport,” Azarenka said. “But, yeah, I’m just happy that everything I went through, you know, I still could manage to give my best and really come out there and try to focus on my game and play tennis that I can produce. And that’s the thing that I love to do, is to compete.”
When asked about the impact the last 48 hours had on her ability to play she said: “It isn’t easy, that’s for sure, but I knew what I had to do. I had to stay calm. I had to stay positive. I just had to deal with the things that came onto me.”
“I was actually really happy that I went through so many things knowing that I can still produce the tennis that I can and keep the focus that I can. It just motivates me to be a better player.”
The two displayed some magnificent winners in the match, especially in the critical moments at the end of the first and second sets, creating acute angles and using full power to outmaneuver the other. The telling statistic for Azarenka was her ability to hold a high first serve percentage and for Li it was her unforced error count of 57 which far outweighed her winner count of 36.
The first and last points in the opening set were a double fault. A nervy Li served first and was immediately broken to start a topsy turvy set of service breaks between the two.
Li edged ahead at the pointy end of the set 5-3 and failed when she attempted to serve it out, going down 0-40 and managing to save one break point with an excellent backhand crosscourt winner but losing the second after netting the ball. She was able to close it out though in the next game when Azarenka double faulted on set point down to gift the 30-year-old the set 6-4.
The Belarusian turned the tables in the second set by breaking Li in the first game and consolidating in the next. She really upped her power and put pressure on her opponent, running Li around the court to force her into making an error.
Serving at 1-3, 30-30 in the second Li rolled over on her ankle and was helped back to her chair by the trainer. She received a Medical Timeout to have the ankle strapped before going back on court and holding serve to trail Azarenka 2-3 in the second set. After some more breaks of serve Azarenka got ahead 5-4 and served out the set 6-4 to force a decider.
The finalists swapped breaks to open the final set and as Li held serve for 2-1 a nine minute delay arrived for the Australia Day fireworks. At the resumption of play Li rolled over on her ankle for a second time and hit her head on the ground. She received a second Medical Timeout to check for concussion but she appeared to be fine and continued to play.
Azarenka then applied the pressure to run the battered Li around the court and force a break of serve in the fifth game to lead 3-2. She again broke while leading 5-3 after Li sent her forehand long on championship point down.
Azarenka was very emotional after the match and was asked if defending the title was more special than winning it for the first time.
“I don’t know. It’s a completely different mix of feelings. This one is way more emotional. It’s gonna be extra special for me, for sure. I never compare my wins or losses ever in any tournaments. It’s just a matter of the feeling that you get, things you’ve been through, because you’re the only one who knows what you’ve been going through these two weeks.”
With the win Azarenka becomes just the fifth active player to win multiple Grand Slam titles along with Serena and Venus Williams, Maria Sharapova and Svetlana Kuznetsova.
Jaclyn Stacey is a Melbourne based freelance journalist covering the Australian Open tournament as media for Tennis Panorama News. Follow her Australian Open updates on @TennisNewsTPN. Follow her personal twitter @JackattackAU.