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Steve Flink: Azarenka starts redemption with second Australian open triumph

1/26/2013 12:00:00 PM

When Victoria Azarenka walked on court for her final round appointment today in Melbourne against the immensely popular Li Na, the world’s top ranked woman tennis player was carrying a lot of emotional baggage with her. Azarenka had injured her reputation needlessly with self-inflicted wounds, leaving herself vulnerable to the harshest levels of criticism from both her peers and the media. At the end of her semifinal contest against the enormously promising American Sloane Stephens, Azarenka had squandered five match points when serving for the match with a 6-1, 5-3 lead. After losing that game, she took a ten minute medical timeout before returning to the court to break Stephens for a straight set victory.

In her post-match television interviews, Azarenka made no mention of any injuries, saying instead that she had found herself having trouble breathing, explaining that she was crippled by nerves. Not until her press conference much later did Azarenka refer to the back or rib injury that she believed had brought on her anxiety attack. The prevailing view was that she had not broken the rules, but rather had bent them. The fact remains that she had clearly not behaved in good faith. There was something terribly distasteful about her conduct, which was fundamentally unfair to Stephens. The incident reflected very badly on Azarenka, and it was unsurprising that she was treated so roughly in the court of public opinion. She deserved every bit of the criticism that came her way because she invited it with her actions.

And yet, Azarenka went to work today and handled her daunting assignment remarkably well, even with grace. It was apparent from the instant she stepped on court for the meeting with Li that the crowd was overwhelmingly in favor of her Chinese opponent. Surely, Azarenka must have felt a degree of pressure she had never known before. But, in the end, after an inauspicious beginning, Azarenka fought with quiet ferocity for a victory she thoroughly deserved. Azarenka dropped the opening set to an inspired Li, and that did not auger well for her. Across her distinguished career, Azarenka had been beaten 22 of 28 times at the majors after falling behind by a set.

This time, however, she was not to be denied. Azarenka gathered all of her resources to overcome Li 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 in one of the most bizarre women’s major finals in memory. Twice, Li was sprawled out on the court as she injured her ankle. When she fell down the second time, she landed backwards and alarmingly hit her head, requiring tournament officials to make certain she had not suffered a concussion. Meanwhile, in addition to the two delays for Li’s misfortunes, there was an additional delay for fireworks at nearby Melbourne Park that were a central part of the Australia Day festivities. To put it mildly, this was much more than just another final round duel at a Grand Slam event. It was an occasion marked by high drama, but both players made significant contributions as they sought another high historical honor.

Both Azarenka and Li Na had secured one Grand Slam title heading into this collision, with Azarenka prevailing at the 2012 Australian Open and Li taking the 2011 French Open crown. Each woman was contesting a third major final in Melbourne. Li—who will turn 31 in late February—was hoping to establish herself as the oldest woman player to win the big event “Down Under” during the Open Era. Azarenka, meanwhile, knew full well that defeat against Li would result in the loss of her No. 1 world ranking, with Serena Williams reclaiming the top spot. The consequences of this encounter were far reaching and unmistakable, providing a big opportunity along with considerable burdens for both players.

The drama was evident from the outset. Li double faulted on the first point of the match and was broken in that first game. Azarenka’s returns came back deep and forcefully, and Li could not contain her. But Li struck back boldly. Although Azarenka did not miss a first serve in the second game, she was unable to hold as Li’s returns rocked the favorite back on her heels. Li survived a deuce game on her serve to hold for 2-1 as the depth and pace of her two-handed backhand paid rich dividends. With Azarenka serving in the fourth game at 15-40, Li gained another break to move ahead 3-1, hammering a backhand return with such velocity that Azarenka was provoked into an error.

Li had two game points for 4-1 but she wasted one with an errant forehand swing volley, and Azarenka out-rallied her purposefully on the other. Back on serve at 2-3, Azarenka was beginning to get her bearings. But Li was sharper and more aggressive at this stage. A scintillating backhand down the line winner gave Li the break for 4-2.Serving at 40-0 in the seventh game, Li released a sizzling forehand inside-out winner to establish a commanding 5-2 lead. But Azarenka collected two games in a row, winning eight of eleven points in closing the gap to 5-4. The top seed battled persistently to hold serve in the tenth game. She had a game point for 5-5, but could not get the edge in a crucial rally. Li seized the initiative, opening up the court skillfully for a forehand winner. After four deuces, Azarenka was under duress, double faulting at break point down. Set to Li Na, 6-4.

Recent historical patterns suggested that Azarenka was going to lose this match. In 24 of the previous 25 Grand Slam tournament finals for the women, the player who had captured the opening set had been the victor. The lone exception was in 2011 at the Australian Open, when Kim Clijsters rallied to oust Li Na in three sets. But that, of course, was before Li had gone on to record her French Open triumph more than four months later. She looked decidedly more self-assured across this past fortnight, upending No. 2 seed Maria Sharapova in the penultimate round after dismissing No. 4 Agnieszka Radwanska in the quarters. Li had not lost a set in the entire tournament. She seemed poised to make that statistic hold up against Azarenka.

Yet no one could underestimate Azarenka, as prideful a competitor as there is in the women’s game. She was not going to walk away from this challenge. After willing her way back into the opening set and performing with growing authority, Azarenka was more confident and sounder at the outset of the second set. She broke Li in a long opening game, then held for 2-0 after two deuces. Gradually, Azarenka was asserting herself more from the backcourt, changing pace and trajectory judiciously, bearing down hard. Li was unraveling to a degree, making unprovoked mistakes, taking a defensive posture too often. Azarenka broke again for 3-0 at 30, sealing the last two points with controlled aggression.

Nevertheless, no lead was safe in this intriguing battle. Both players were returning beautifully. Li broke her adversary for 1-3 and took a 30-15 lead in the fourth game. That was the moment she rolled her left ankle for the first time as Azarenka sent a backhand swing volley behind Li, who lost her footing. Li had her ankle taped by the trainer and when play resumed she seemed to be moving comfortably. She produced an inside out backhand winner for 40-30, and then ran down a forehand down the line from Azarenka, answering with a superb backhand winner down the line.

Serving at 3-2, Azarenka trailed 0-40 but lifted her game in the nick of time—before Li could gather unstoppable momentum. Azarenka rallied to 30-40 with consecutive ground stroke winners before Li missed a sitter off the backhand to allow Azarenka back to deuce. Azarenka held on from there for 4-2, registering a crucial hold. In the seventh game, Li Na double faulted consecutively to fall behind 15-40 but she served her way out of that dark corner with admirable poise. After making it back to deuce, she closed out that game with a flourish, making a terrific backhand passing shot up the line before using a kick second serve to set up a backhand winner down the line.

The intensity on both sides of the net was almost palpable. Li was pushing as hard as possible to record a straight set victory. She broke Azarenka for 4-4 and was within striking distance of her goal. But the Chinese competitor was broken at 15 in the ninth game as Azarenka raised the level of her return game at a propitious juncture. In that pivotal game, Azarenka was unrelenting, holding at love to seal the set. It was one set all, and Azarenka seemed increasingly in control of her surroundings.

Azarenka broke Li at 15 in the opening game of the final set. At break point, she backed Li up with a deep return and then stepped in for a forehand winner into an open space. But Li responded to that setback with resolution. Azarenka had a game point for 2-0 that Li took away with a stinging inside out forehand winner. An excellent return lifted Li to break point, and then Azarenka double faulted. It was 1-1. The match still hung very much in the balance. Li surged to 2-1, holding at 15 with her fourth ace of the contest. Li seemed resurgent, but now it was time for the fireworks display and the players had to stop for about ten minutes.

Unimaginably, with Azarenka serving the first point of the fourth game right after the fireworks delay, Li Na suffered her second fall as she tried to set up to hit a backhand. She not only rolled her ankle again but hit her head on the hard court. After looking for any signs of a concussion, the officials gave the good-natured Li the green light to continue. Li had a break point for 3-1 that Azarenka erased with a cleanly hit two-handed backhand winner. Azarenka held on for 2-2 with a dazzling forehand down the line winner. Despite her woes, Li battled on gamely and seemingly without much pain or discomfort. But, serving in the fifth game, she double faulted for 15-30 and was broken at 15. The unerring Azarenka was probing at every juncture, picking apart Li, winning point after point with smart percentage tennis.

Azarenka held at love for 4-2 before Li held easily in the seventh game. Azarenka served to establish a 5-3 lead but was in jeopardy, falling behind 0-30. She took the next two points but Li had a break point for 4-4, only to drive a return well beyond the baseline. Azarenka held on with tenacity, making Li serve to stay in the match. Li fashioned a 40-30 lead but Azarenka caught her off guard with a higher trajectory forehand down the line, designed to be disruptive. The tactic worked as Li netted a backhand. Soon Azarenka advanced to match point, and she sealed the win fittingly with a bruising return down the middle that elicited an error from Li.

Azarenka’s 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 triumph was among her grittiest on a Grand Slam stage. In her last major event prior to Melbourne at the 2012 U.S. Open, Azarenka came from a set down against Serena Williams in the final and was two points away from the biggest victory of her career with the American serving at 3-5 in the third set. Serena recouped to win four games in a row to claim the title. On that occasion, Azarenka had her share of crowd supporters. But this time around in Australia, Azarenka must have felt that everyone in Rod Laver Arena and well beyond was against her. That was largely her own fault. The hope here is that she learns from her “medical timeout” episode, and refuses to engage in that kind of gamesmanship again. She is an authentic champion, and doesn’t need to abuse the rules.

The beauty of her win over Li Na is that she achieved the victory fair and square. The way I see it, she commenced the process of redemption with the way she went about her business against Li. She should not be judged solely on her transgression at the end of her semifinal. In securing her second straight Australian Open crown, Azarenka reminded us strikingly that she is a great player who should be in the thick of things at the majors for many more years. Meanwhile, Li Na demonstrated that she will be a serious threat all year long at the Grand Slam events.
Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.