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Azarenka dispatches Li

Sun., Jan. 27, 2013

Victoria Azarenka poses with trophy at Royal Botanical Gardens. (Associated Press)
Victoria Azarenka poses with trophy at Royal Botanical Gardens. (Associated Press)

Belarusian will retain top ranking with title

MELBOURNE, Australia – Victoria Azarenka had the bulk of the crowd against her. The fireworks were fizzling out, and when she looked over the net she saw Li Na crashing to the court and almost knocking herself out.

Considering the cascading criticism she’d encountered after her previous win, Azarenka didn’t need the focus of the Australian Open final to be on another medical timeout.

So after defending her title with a 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 victory over the sixth-seeded Li in one of the most unusual finals ever at Melbourne Park, Azarenka understandably dropped her racket and cried tears of relief late Saturday night.

She heaved as she sobbed into a towel beside the court, before regaining her composure to collect the trophy.

“It isn’t easy, that’s for sure, but I knew what I had to do,” the 23-year-old Belarusian said. “I had to stay calm. I had to stay positive. I just had to deal with the things that came onto me.”

There were a lot of those things squeezed into the 2-hour, 40-minute match. Li, who was playing her second Australian Open final in three years, twisted her ankle and tumbled to the court in the second and third sets.

The second time was on the point immediately after a 10-minute delay for the Australia Day fireworks – a familiar fixture in downtown Melbourne on Jan. 26, but not usually coinciding with a final.

“I think I was a little bit worried when I was falling,” Li said, in her humorous, self-deprecating fashion. “Because two seconds I couldn’t really see anything. It was totally black.

“So when the physio come, she was like, ‘Focus on my finger.’ I was laughing. I was thinking, ‘This is tennis court, not like hospital.’ ”

Li’s injury was obvious and attracted even more support for her from the 15,000-strong crowd.

Azarenka had generated some bad PR by taking a medical timeout after wasting five match points on her own serve in her semifinal win over American teenager Sloane Stephens on Thursday. She came back after the break and finished off Stephens in the next game, later telling an on-court interviewer that she “almost did the choke of the year.”

She was accused of gamesmanship and manipulating the rules to get time to regain her composure against Stephens.

Azarenka will retain the No. 1 ranking she’s mostly held since her first Grand Slam win in Melbourne last year.

Li moved into the top five and is heartened by a recent trend of Australian runners-up winning the French Open. She accomplished that in 2011, as did Ana Ivanovic (2008) and Maria Sharapova (2012).

“I wish I can do the same this year, as well,” Li said.



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