Final yields tears, pain and fireworks
An emotional Victoria Azarenka has declared her second Australian Open title to be "extra special", after a difficult fortnight ended with tears of joy - floods of them - on Rod Laver Arena on Saturday night.
A hostile crowd, two injury timeouts, the annual Australia Day fireworks and a sobbing champion provided the backdrop to an Azarenka triumph that was less popular than it was hard-earned.
"It's a completely different mix of feelings," Azarenka said, after her three-set defeat of crowd favourite Li Na. "This one is way more emotional. It's gonna be extra special for me, for sure."
The top seed defeated China's Li Na 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 to claim a second grand slam title from three finals, thus retaining the No. 1 ranking for a 49th week. There were boos when she arrived, and cheers that greeted her every error, but Azarenka played through the ill-will and the interruptions to repeat her 2012 success against Maria Sharapova but in circumstances that were far, far more testing.
Despite the overwhelming support for Li, that ballooned after Azarenka's contentious medical timeout in her semi-final against Sloane Stephens created a media storm, the Belarusian said: "I was expecting way worse, to be honest, actually. What can you do?
You just have to go out there and try to play tennis in the end of the day. That's what it was all about. It's a tennis match, tennis battle, final of the Australian Open. I was there to play that.
"The things what happened in the past, I did the best thing I could to explain, to do everything I could, and it was left behind me already. So when I went into the match, I was really focused on trying to play that particular match, the most important match of the tournament."
"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. So it's definitely an emotional one and it's going to be special. But to defend the title, it's a different one, for sure."
Azarenka did not celebrate after converting her first match point, but dropped her racquet, saluted her box, and walked to her chair, burying her head in her towel and crying uncontrollably. Two days of tension came pouring out, and she left the court to compose herself before the trophy presentation. Her coach, Sam Sumyk, had reassured the crying 23-year-old ''you are a champion''. The title, for a second time, was hers.
In keeping with the theme of the week, there were multiple injury dramas, the second and most serious on the resumption from the 10-minute interruption for the riverside pyrotechnics. Li reached for a wide backhand and not only re-injured the ankle twisted early in the match but whacked her head on the blue Plexicushion and needing a second injury timeout that appeared to include a medical check, as well.
The first came during the fourth point of the fourth game of the second set, Li twisting her - untaped - left ankle when attempting to change direction to chase a wrong-footing backhand volley. She grimaced, then hobbled to the courtside chair, an assessment by the medical staff preceding medical timeout. The process took close to six minutes.
Azarenka showed immediate concern, then sat for the first three minutes, before asking for some old balls and practising her serve in her warm-up jacket in the cool night air.
When the match resumed, Li held serve with consecutive backhand errors.
Crisis averted, it seemed, while opportunity knocked immediately afterwards, Li earning three break-back points in the next game, but unable to convert.
So it continued, with almost as many breaks as holds.
Much of the pre-match interest centred on the reception Azarenka would receive from a Melbourne Park crowd whose support for the popular Li was expected to be magnified by the ill-will surrounding Azarenka's controversial medical timeout late in her semi-final against Sloane Stephens, and inconsistent explanations in several post-match interviews.
"It was definitely not easy with all the attention, you know, with all the press around. But it was definitely new experience for me that I think I handled quite well, and I can only learn from this experience and moved on forward and try to improve as a player and as a person, as well," said Azarenka.
And so it was, for the contrast between the players' respective welcomes was clear for all to hear - as, appallingly, it must be said, was the smattering of hoots that greeted Azarenka during the introductions.
Emotional final: Victoria Azarenka in tears after the win but she recovered to wish the crowd a happy Australia Day. Photo: AFP
They were louder still in the ninth game of the second set, when Azarenka smacked a ball away in frustration after a fault.
No latitude. Little forgiveness. For a change, it was not the volume of Azarenka's shrieks that was the volume-related talking point.
The match itself was untidy, largely uninspiring, with errors outweighing winners by some margin, and the fiercely pro-Li crowd showing an almost unsporting enthusiasm for every Azarenka error, even her double faults.
Indeed, the favouritism became almost uncomfortable at times, and the hostility seemed to unsettle the top seed, who managed just two winners in the first nine games.
"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. And that's pretty much it. 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," said Azarenka.
Azarenka finished more strongly, becoming the eighth player to defend her Australian title in the Open era, and the first since Serena Williams in 2009-10.