Victoria Azarenka broke down in tears after fighting back to beat Li Na in an incident-filled Australian Open final to retain her title and the top ranking in women’s tennis.
The No. 1 seed from Belarus won 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 last night at Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne, where she secured her first major title 12 months ago. Li, the No. 6 seed from China, took medical timeouts after twice tumbling to the court during a match that was also interrupted by a fireworks display.
Azarenka, 23, held her face in her hands before sobbing into her towel after becoming the eighth woman to win back-to-back championships at the season-opening Grand Slam since the sport’s professional era began in 1968. Defeat in the final would have seen her lose the top ranking to Serena Williams.
“This one is way more emotional,” Azarenka said in a news conference. “It’s gonna be extra special for me. 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.”
In a match lasting two hours, 40 minutes and featuring 16 service breaks, Li’s injury timeouts and a nine-minute break for the fireworks, Azarenka secured the victory on her first match point when her opponent sent a forehand long for her 57th unforced error. Azarenka made 28, though hit half as many winners as Li.
It was Li’s second three-set defeat in the Melbourne final in three years following her loss to Kim Clijsters in 2011, when she also won the first set. She went on to become the first Asian-born player to win a Grand Slam singles title later that year at the French Open.
“Without falling down I was feeling pretty good,” Li, who at 30 years, 335 days was trying to become the oldest woman to win the tournament in the Open era, said. “In important games she played better than me, so that’s why she can win the title.”
Li was met with louder cheers from the crowd when the players were introduced and enjoyed more support throughout the match. She began with a double-fault before losing her opening service game by putting a backhand long.
After Li took the first set, Azarenka raced into a 3-0 lead in the second before Li pulled it back to 4-4 even after receiving a medical timeout in the fifth game to have her left ankle taped following a fall. Azarenka won the next two games to take the match into a third set as Li mixed winners with unforced errors.
Li held for a 2-1 lead before play took a break for Melbourne’s annual Australia Day fireworks display. Li then rolled her ankle again on the opening point when they returned, banging her head on the court. She was left her dazed and requiring another medical timeout.
Azarenka broke for a 3-2 lead and jumped out to a two-game advantage by holding to love. She then broke Li’s service for the ninth time to secure the championship and join Serena and Venus Williams, Maria Sharapova and Svetlana Kuznetsova as the only active female players with at least two major singles titles.
While Azarenka becomes the first No. 1 seed to win a major since Serena Williams at Wimbledon in 2010, her run to the title hasn’t been smooth in a country where she’s now won 21 straight matches in the month of January.
She was forced to withdraw before the semifinals of the Brisbane International, her only tuneup event, after her right big toe got infected following a pedicure.
Three days ago, her semifinal victory over U.S. teenager Sloane Stephens was marred by a controversial medical timeout. In getting treatment after blowing five match points, Azarenka attracted criticism from former players including Brad Gilbert and was accused of gamesmanship on social networking sites.
After making five unforced errors on match points in the ninth game of the second set against Stephens, Azarenka got a 10-minute reprieve that was mostly spent off the court. When she returned, she broke back to close out a 6-1, 6-4 win and then gave contradictory answers about her reasons for the timeout. She initially indicated that she was struggling to breathe because of nerves, then said that she had been treated for a rib injury that affected her breathing.
“What happened with Sloane, it was a big deal,” Azarenka said after beating Li. “But I take it as a great learning experience and just try to live the moment and take the best things out of what happened and move forward.”