Li went on in 2011 to win her own Grand Slam at the French Open, while Azarenka went on last year to reach the US Open final. Both women, then, were fighting for their second title in their third final and, to add an extra nice symmetry to the contest, Li’s only two wins against Azarenka since 2009 had come in her two big Grand Slam runs: The Belarusian won all three of their 2012 meetings.
There was more at stake.
Could Azarenka win over a crowd already predisposed to supporting Li—coming as she does from this Grand Slam’s Asian-Pacific catchment—even before the controversy surrounding a medical time-out at the end of her semi-final win?
Could the 30-year-old Li find enough form after her tougher run through the draw: She had beaten four seeds—all in straight sets—that included No4 Agnieszka Radwanska and No2 Maria Sharapova, compared with the single seed, No29 Sloane Stephens, faced by Azarenka in that controversial semi. Should Li do so, she would become the oldest Australian Open champion of the Open era.
Whichever woman won would also become only the fifth active woman to hold more than one Grand Slam title. And there was one more factor: Azarenka had to defend her title to defend her No1 ranking—or Serena Williams would take her top spot.
So there was drama at every turn even before the match began, and everyone knew for certain that there would be fireworks. This was Australia Day, and Melbourne’s celebratory pyrotechnics always interrupt play at its biggest sporting event of the year. Even so, no one could predict just how much drama the two women would face. Amid see-sawing swings in the scoreline came falls, injuries, delays—as well as fireworks.
Even the start was unusual. Azarenka won the toss but chose the end, leaving Li the opportunity to open serve. It proved to be a smart decision and she immediately broke an edgy Li. But with the balls in her hand, Azarenka suffered from the same nerves and she too was broken.
Li battled to hold her next serve, too, but won a fierce backhand exchange to change ends with the lead for the first time, 2-1. She went after Azarenka again, returning her serve flat, hard and deep, and again is was a cross-court backhand that drew the error and a second break. Li led 3-1, but not for long as the breaks continued.
Although Azarenka began to find her rhythm from the baseline, Li remained unruffled. She went on the offensive again, playing a pair of down-the-line backhands winners for a 0-40 lead and worked yet another break.
Li was playing first-strike tennis, and while it forced up her error count, it also extended her winner count well beyond Azarenka’s, 9 to 2. And her confidence rose the more she caught the lines and Azarenka missed them.
But Azarenka has become a player as tough in mind as in body, and despite coming close to another break—a Li backhand down the line went just long—the top seed held for the first time and her infamous rhythm off the ground began to pressure Li.
Serving for the set at 5-3, the Chinese woman overhit three consecutive balls off Azarenka’s powerful returns to face three break points and a netted backhand switched the momentum to the No1 seed. Azarenka served to try and level the score.
Li, though, was determined to maintain her offensive tactics, and a Djokovic-style cross-court forehand winner gave her break point for the set, but the super-quick Azarenka passed her.
For the first time, both women were playing their best at the same time, and it took four deuces before Li could snatch the set courtesy of an untimely double fault from Azarenka. Despite a slew of 18 errors, Li had fired 12 winners to Azarenka’s two, and it earned her the first set, 6-4.
It was a different Azarenka who opened the second set. She returned deep to Li’s baseline and made cross-cross angles to force an immediate break, and as the tall Belarusian’s movement and rhythm improved, she advanced to 3-0. The rallies were longer, the errors fewer and the tennis increasingly watchable as the elegant shot-making of Li came under pressure.
The Chinese woman did not panic, though, and got onto the scoreboard with a break back. Fit and strong from her intense training away from competition with new coach Carlos Rodriguez, Li held her own against the 6ft athleticism of her younger opponent. Indeed she was in full flight, and 30-30 on her own serve, when a wrong-footing fall brought her to a painful standstill.
Back with her ankle strapped up, she actually held serve and went on a run of winners to lead 40-0 on Azarenka’s serve, before a dreadful netted volley threw away her chance to level at 3-3. She did break the eighth, but another sequence of errors handed back the advantage and Azarenka served out the set, 6-4.
Now with the match evenly poised, it was still impossible to call. A stream of errors from Li gave Azarenka a quick break with her ninth point in the last 10, but Li broke back, and held for a 2-1 lead. With almost two hours on the clock, it was firework time—a 10-minute opportunity for some running repairs to both players—but in their first point back, Li’s ankle gave way again and she crashed like a felled tree, whipping her head back onto the court.
The tournament doctor gave a dazed Li a lengthy assessment before she agreed to carry on. The crowd cheered and she beamed back, the most infectious smile in tennis. Yet Azarenka deserved credit.
Through these difficult moments, she held her concentration and form well. With the points at 81 apiece, she held serve, made the break and held again. It established a lead that Li could not pull back and Azarenka upped her level, forcing winners on the forehand and drawing errors on Li’s compromised backhand. The Chinese woman stacked up 21 errors to Azarenka’s four. It was, inevitably in the end, victory to Vika, 6-3.
Both looked emotionally drained: Azarenka, the mental stresses of the last two days released in floods of tears; Li putting on a smile but, in repose as she watched her opponent take the trophy, fighting back her own tears. She brought one more smile to her supporters’ faces with the promise: “I know I’m not young, but I really look forward to coming back next year.”
Azarenka, though, will have won over the fans here with her restrained and committed performance against Li. She said afterwards, “I think the whole world now knows I’m an emotional player… I just try to live the moment and take the best things out of it that happened and move forward.”
She moves forward into her second continuous year as No1. Li, meanwhile, moves up to No5, and apparently with every prospect of winning her own second Slam come Paris in June.