Victoria Azarenka came back from a set down to overcome Li Na 4-6 6-4 6-3 and successfully defend her Australian Open singles title in front of a packed Rod Laver Arena.
The 23-year-old, who won her first ever Grand Slam in Melbourne last year, endured a hostile crowd, weak serve and spirited opponent to retain not only the title but also that coveted status as world number one.
The game will be remembered for 16 breaks of serve in one of the most unpredictable Australian Open finals of all time. Li went into the match knowing she had a 2-0 record over the Belarusian in majors and took a competitive first set in just over 40 minutes.
However, the Chinese was unable to gather momentum during a match as she endured two injury timeouts and a break for the Australia Day fireworks. She will rise up the WTA rankings but that will be no consolation for the 2011 Roland Garros champion.
As for Azarenka, this victory cements her status at the top of the women’s game and will give her real confidence heading into the rest of the season. Her preparations for the tournament were hampered and she made no friends over her semi-final ‘gamesmanship’, but in the end proved a worthy winner in front of 15,000 supporters.
She becomes only the eighth woman to successfully defend the Australian open crown.
Nerves certainly had the better of both players early on, with back-to-back breaks to open up and a total 11 errors from the first three games. Li had the first chance to stretch out of two-game lead on Azarenka’s serve and duly took it with a fierce backhand return under her opponents’ feet to take a 3-1 lead in the first set.
Although Azarenka came back with a break herself, Li stretched her lead to 4-2 (five games witnessing breaks of serve) with a superb backhand down the line after controlling her opponent throughout the point.
Li was hitting the heavier shots and coped well at the back of the court over the brief spells that Azarenka pushed forward, taking the seventh game by love but then lost her own serve to see her lead cut to 5-4.
The Chinese had set point on Azarenka’s serve, punching away a cross-court forehand, but two points later the Belarusian made an impossible passing shot to stay in the game. Four set points came and went and it was still not over, until an uncharacteristic double fault saw Li take the first set 6-4.
Although Azarenka had come back into the set, the fact Li won 12 winners to her opponents’ four over 10 games was the clear difference in the pair. Too often Azarenka hit rallies long on the baseline, no doubt trying to match Li’s heavy groundstrokes.
As often with Grand Slam champions, write them off at your peril, for Azarenka immediately hit back with two breaks and hold of serve in the second. The match was getting tense as Li broke again for 1-3, and just as a crucial fifth game got into its stride Li turned her ankle at the back of the court.
The Chinese limped off for a medial timeout, much to the concern of the Melbourne crowd, and after three minutes heavy strapping was not only fit enough to return to court but won her next two points to defend her serve. 0-40 up in the next game, Li lost the next five points as Azarenka showed her ruthless nature to move 4-2 in front.
Although Li would bring the set back Azarenka was too good in the final two games, defending her serve to love to take the match into a third set 6-4.
Shared breaks opened the second set before a long stoppage for the Australia Day fireworks – a mainstay in Melbourne. Just one point into the next game and Li was down again, twisting her ankle off a backhand and hitting her head on the way down to the ground.
Another medical timeout came and went, and it was clear Li was struggling with her game as Azarenka went forward with real purpose. The defending champion shared breaks again before taking out a 5-3 lead and although Li took her to deuce on her serve, Azarenka saw herself just a point away from the title after almost two hours on court.
Li faulted her first before hitting a second serve into the body, which Azarenka hit back to the baseline. The Chinese went for a backhand across the court only to see her shot – and title dreams – fall the wrong side of the line.