Azarenka finds her nerve

Last Saturday, world No. 1 Victoria Azarenka defeated sixth seeded Li Na 4–6, 6–4, 6–3 to claim her second consecutive Australian Open title. The Belarusian was the more consistent of the two players and her strokes seemed to become stronger as the match went on. Meanwhile, Li’s improved forehand broke down as the match extended and the Chinese player fell in her second trip to the Australian Open finals.

But this final was far more than a story about groundstroke consistency. The real tale of the match was each player’s extraordinary faith in herself and commitment to winning.

This final had the makings of a great match from the outset. The number one player in the world was playing against the most impressive player in the tournament up to that point. Both players were already champions, having each won a Grand Slam tournament and appeared in another final. Both players fully understood the stakes.

For Li Na the pressure was immense. When she advanced to the Australian Open final in 2011 an estimated 120 million people watched the match in her native China. At that time she was attempting to become the first Chinese tennis singles Grand Slam champion. In that match Li won the first set as she did in 2013. However, in 2011 the moment seemed too big for her as she lost her mental focus and allowed Kim Clijsters to win the next two sets to claim the title.

In 2013 Li seemed to have learned from her past experience. With crowd behind her she appeared fully composed. In her post match interview she said, “I can hear a lot of Chinese fans, yeah … I was, oh, looks like China Open.” Again, she began the match well and claimed the first set, 6–4 applying constant pressure on Azarenka’s serve, breaking the world number one three times. But although she took the set, Li dropped two service games and struggled with her own serve throughout the set. In the second and third sets, as Azarenka’s serve becamse stronger and her holds easier, Li’s serve became a liability.

The match included a number of bizarre delays. First, during the second set Li turned her ankle, an injury that looked more serious than it ended up being. Then, at the start of the third set play was interrupted by fireworks celebrating Australia Day. Finally, the point immediately after the fireworks delay ended when Li turned her ankle a second time and slammed her head onto the Plexicushion court. Throughout all of this Azarenka kept her cool. The delays, and the partisan crowd who cheered for her demise failed to affect her.

Azarenka has been no stranger to controversial delays. Two days earlier in the semifinal she defeated Sloan Stephens, a 19-year-old American who had knocked off Serena Williams. In the second set Azarenka served for the match but was unable to convert on any of her five match points. During the change over Azarenka called for the trainer claiming a need for a medical timeout. The timeout was given and Azarenka was allowed to leave the court for ten minutes to receive medical attention. Many commentators and fans felt the timeout was dubious given the peculiar timing. Azarenka had not seemed to have had an injury at any time during the match. Also, it was clear her nerves were getting the best of her as she tried to serve out the match. Many felt that Azarenka had stretched the rules to give herself a better chance at victory. In fact, the next day the New York Times called the incident The Timeout Jeered Around the World. Due to this backdrop the crowd at the women’s final supported Li as passionately as they booed Azarenka.

While she may not be the most liked No. 1 ever, with this victory Azarenka must be commended on her fighting spirit. Only five months ago she surrendered a 5–3 lead in the US Open final to Williams. In the press conference after the disappointing loss she said, “When there is still a point you always have a chance.” Azarenka fights to the end. Though she was not victorious in New York her fighting spirit carried her in Melbourne. That is why she is the world No. 1.

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