A Calmer Li Na Returns to Australian Open Final Against Azarenka

Two years after losing her first Grand Slam tennis final at the Australian Open, Li Na is back in the championship match in Melbourne with a different approach.

“Last time is more exciting, nervous, because first time to be in final,” Li, the No. 6 seed from China, said in a news conference yesterday. “But I think this time more calmed down, more cool.”

Li went on to become the first Asian-born player to win a major singles title at the 2011 French Open, following her loss to Kim Clijsters at Rod Laver Arena. Today she faces defending champion Victoria Azarenka of Belarus.

The winner will join Serena and Venus Williams, Maria Sharapova and Svetlana Kuznetsova as the only active female players with at least two major singles titles. Should Li triumph one month before she turns 31, she would be the oldest woman to win the Australian Open since the professional era began in 1968.

Azarenka is the 4-6 favorite to take the trophy, meaning a successful $60 bet would return $40 plus the original stake, according to U.K. bookmaker William Hill, which rates Li a 6-5 chance.

Azarenka holds a 5-4 lead in career meetings against Li, winning the past four.

“It’s a new start so I’m looking forward to the final,” Li said.

Timeout Troubles

While Li joked throughout her news conference, Azarenka adopted a more serious tone in speaking about confusion over a medical timeout during her semifinal win two days ago over Sloane Stephens. The timing of the treatment prompted accusations of gamesmanship from former players, including Brad Gilbert.

After blowing five match points on her serve in the ninth game of the second set, 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.

“The timing was unfortunate,” Azarenka told reporters yesterday. “When I felt the pain I thought I could continue, but it just got to the point where I couldn’t. The nerves I was talking about, which is what was misunderstood, I’d never felt that way in my life and I didn’t understand what was going on.”

Azarenka, 23, said she hoped there wouldn’t be any backlash from the crowd at Rod Laver Arena, where her semifinal timeout had been met with jeers and whistles.

No Control

“I’m there to play tennis, like I always do,” she added. “I can’t control what people are going to do. What I can control is try to be myself.”

Li’s on-court interviews at Melbourne Park have produced laughter, with mirthful complaints about her husband’s snoring and her coach’s grueling training schedule. Now she enters the final having had a smoother preparation than her opponent.

While Azarenka played only two tune-up matches before the tournament because of an infected toenail, Li has a 14-1 record in 2013. She credited her form to a tough off-season training schedule with coach Carlos Rodriguez, who previously mentored seven-time Grand Slam champion Justine Henin.

Having Rodriguez in her coaching box will also boost her chances of overcoming nerves and her opponent, Li said.

“Last time for my team also is first time to be the final, so nobody tell me what I should do on the court,” Li said. “This time is different story. Carlos, before he was coaching for Justine, so he has a lot of experience for the final. I think should be OK this time.”

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