VICTORIA Azarenka was not sure whether the extraordinary circumstances of her second Australian Open title made Saturday night's dramatic victory more satisfying than her grand slam breakthrough 12 months ago, but what she described as a far different cocktail of feelings was ''way more emotional'' than those she had experienced before.
''It's gonna be extra special for me, for sure,'' said the world No.1. ''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 leaves Melbourne with her second Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup, having celebrated on the dance floor after the torrid few days that culminated with her tearful three-set victory over an accident-prone Li Na. There was the obligatory day-after photo shoot, this time in the Botanical Gardens, broad smiles, blonde hair flowing. The final round of interviews. Then a look at the men's final that drew the curtain on another successful Open fortnight.
There were a few lingering questions about the medical time-out controversy that had dominated the build-up to the point that it made front-page news not just in Melbourne, but in The New York Times, with the so-called ''Timeout Jeered Around the World''. An ''absolute travesty'' in the eyes of Patrick McEnroe was a red flag, too, for others. Andy Murray's brother, Jamie, tweeted: ''Withdrawal due to bad pedicure. Medical timeout at 5-4 for nervousness. I'm not LMFAO. #whoyoutryingtokidd.'' German Tommy Haas: ''So when ur tired, frustrated and stressed which most are in a slam, you can take a 10 minute break off court. Good to know that's allowed now.''
Azarenka, of course, was not allowed to forget it, and certainly not by the fiercely pro-Li crowd. ''I was expecting way worse, to be honest,'' Azarenka admitted. ''What can you do? You just have to go out there and try to play tennis. It's a tennis match, tennis battle, the final of the Australian Open.''
And, after a scratchy beginning, she was able to settle, focus and trim her error count when it mattered. The decisive statistic was that Azarenka converted 9/12 break points compared with the sixth seed's 7/18 during a two-hour, 40 minute match interrupted by a fireworks display and two Li time-outs.
The winner admitted it would have been disastrous had she won through her opponent's retirement, Li first twisting her ankle then cracking her head on the court while leading 2-1 in a tense deciding set, and assessed for a possible concussion by medical staff. Fears that the Chinese star would be unable to continue were shared by Azarenka, the spectre of a second PR disaster looming large.
''It would be the worst probably victory for me,'' Azarenka said on Sunday. ''Nobody ever wants to win that way. It's horrible, really, and I'm just glad that after what happened that she was OK. I never hoped for that, but I think like a flashlight it crosses your mind. But you have to really just get over it because it's the finals and everybody will just die on the court until they retire.''
Li's troubles were unsettling, she said. ''You cannot not feel bad for a person. When someone gets hurt, it's always bad,'' she said. ''And first time she fell, she was limping and I was thinking 'oh my God, what's going to happen?'. So I kind of forgot a little bit that I'm in the match and I have to fight.
''She came out and started hitting winners and I didn't know what to do. I felt bad to start moving her a little bit, so it threw me. But I quickly realised that I had to go back in because she's such an incredible fighter; through the pain and everything she was battling hard. There was a lot of drama.''
And, in the end, a grudging respect from fans that routinely cheered Azarenka's errors, but eventually gave the defending champion a warm ovation at the presentation ceremony, where she thanked her support team for what she admitted had been ''a really long two weeks for me'', her form patchy throughout.
Yet, for all that, Azarenka remains at the top of the world rankings for a 49th week, holding off the seemingly-inevitable lunge from Serena Williams, whom she has just joined in a multiple grand slam sisterhood.