There is just one word to sum up the events surrounding the women’s singles final between Victoria Azarenka and Li Na. Drama.
From 5-4 in the second set of Azarenka’s semifinal to the subdued celebrations following her 4-6 6-4 6-3 victory on Saturday night to secure her second straight Melbourne title, this was a tennis match where what happened off the court almost threatened to rip the spotlight from the action on it.
Thankfully, it didn’t.
Even without the controversy surrounding Azarenka’s semifinal medical time-out in her victory over Sloane Stephens, this final had more than its share of drama once play started. Three interruptions including two medical time-outs – both for Li – and a 10-minute break for fireworks were the kicker in a match that delivered three sets of absorbing tennis.
Azarenka entered Saturday night’s match on a 13-match Melbourne Park winning streak, Li Na was 14-1 for the 2013 season, and the Belarusian had won their past four matches against each other.
In the lead-up, much of the conversation surrounding this final was how would Azarenka handle the scrutiny of the past 48 hours? In the corridor before the match, Li stood still waiting to be called to court, while Azarenka paced around anxiously behind her, her hood on and earphones in as usual.
Li entered to a rapturous applause, while Azarenka received a subdued welcome, which she was fully expecting.
“I was expecting way worse, to be honest,” said Azarenka after the match.
“What can you do? You just have to go out there and try to play tennis in the end of the day.”
And that’s what she did. The top seed channeled her energy into breaking Li in the opening game to get her title defense off to the perfect start, but lost it soon after as Li broke straight back.
It was a pattern that would endure throughout the match. Li would serve first at the beginning of each set, and Azarenka would break her on each occasion.
In all, the opening set threw up seven breaks of serve as both players struggled to hold. Li’s backhand was proving to be her go-to shot as she wrestled the momentum from Azarenka.
The sixth seed needed four set points before finally claiming the opening set after an Azarenka double fault, which she unsuccessfully challenged – more out of desperation than reality.
“In the first set, she was really on top of me, I think, she was really going for her shots and making everything happen,” said Azarenka.
“Then I just had to readjust and really take advantage of when she gives me an opportunity.”
Azarenka lifted her game in the second set, breaking Li twice to set up an early 3-0 lead. Li wrestled back one of the breaks but still trailed 1-3. Then came the night’s first interruption. With the score locked at 30-30, Li fell to the court after trying to change direction, twisting her left ankle in the process.
After getting her ankle taped, Li returned, but the set belonged to Azarenka. The top seed regularly targeted Li’s backhand as she coughed up repeated unforced errors from that side.
The night’s second interruption came early in the final set – a 10-minute break – thanks to the annual Australia Day fireworks.
On the first point following the resumption of play, Li went over on the same injured ankle, crashed to the court and hit the back of her head. The blow was enough to have the sixth seed seeing stars for a moment, but after a quick check-up, play resumed.
Li promptly brought up a break point, which Azarenka fought off with a forehand down the line to hold serve. The world No.1 broke Li the very next game to take a 3-2 lead that she wouldn’t relinquish.
In control of the match now, Azarenka’s consistency won out over Li’s instinct to attack. The sixth seed managed some flashes of brilliance and added a few more winners to the highlights reel, but ultimately she was unable to break back.
Azarenka broke Li one more time to close out the match, becoming the eighth woman to win back-to-back Australian Open titles.
A clearly emotional Azarenka pointed to her team before burying her head in a towel as the pent up emotion from the past two days rushed to the surface.
“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.
“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.”
For Azarenka, it’s a happy end to what has been a difficult fortnight. The media scrutiny surrounding her semifinal win could have disrupted her preparation but, to her credit, she found a way to find focus beyond the headlines.
Needless to say, the 23-year-old will attach different memories to this victory compared with her debut title here last year.
“It's a completely different mix of feelings. This one is way more emotional,” she said.
“It's gonna be extra special for me, for sure.”