Azarenka defends Aussie title
By Christopher Clarey, N.Y. Times News Service
MELBOURNE, Australia -- Victoria Azarenka was expecting to be the finalist with the biggest obstacles to surmount Saturday.
She has been far from her relentless best at this Australian Open for reasons that still remain unclear, and she expected to be greeted with hostility after an emotional 48 hours in which she was widely criticized for seeking medical attention at a critical phase of her semifinal victory over the American teenager Sloane Stephens.
But as it turned out, Li Na was the finalist who was in for a traumatic evening in Rod Laver Arena, and in a momentum-swinging final interrupted by fireworks and, yes, more medical timeouts, Azarenka successfully defended her title by rallying to win, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3.
Li, the 30-year-old Chinese star who was also a finalist here in 2011, twisted her ankle not once but twice, and she even said she had blacked out for a moment when the back of her head slammed into the court surface early in the third set, after her second tumble of the night.
"Maybe if I'm not falling down, it's another story," Li said. "You never know. But the truth: I was falling down, so nothing can change."
The victory, which allowed Azarenka to retain the No. 1 ranking ahead of Serena Williams, was a tribute to her powers of resilience and concentration, considering all the disruptions and negative energy coming her way on and off court during the second week of the tournament.
When Li missed her final shot, Azarenka dropped her racket, eyes wide, and then went to the net to shake hands.
She was soon on her chair sobbing into a towel.
"It's been a long match; it's been a tough match," Azarenka, the No. 1 seed, said later. "Li Na was absolutely playing great tennis. Unfortunate things that happened to her, you know, but that's sport.
"But I'm just happy that everything I went through, I still could manage to give my best and really come out there and try to focus on my game and play tennis, that I can produce. And that's the thing I love to do, is to compete."
The victory was the latest major coup on a hard court for Azarenka, 23. Her baseline-hugging power game is a fine fit for the true-bouncing, hardcourt version of the sport.
This victory, which required 2 hours and 40 minutes, allowed Azarenka to join an elite club. She is now the fifth active women's player with more than one Grand Slam singles title.
Serena Williams came into this tournament as a prohibitive favorite but was stunned in the quarterfinals after experiencing back problems and eventually losing to the 19-year-old Stephens.
Azarenka had scares of her own, dropping a set to Jamie Hampton in the third round, then losing her composure in the final stages of her match against Stephens.
Treated on a changeover after complaining of breathing problems with Stephens about to serve to stay in the match at 4-5 in the second set, Azarenka was eventually taken from the court for a medical timeout.
In all, the break lasted nearly 10 minutes, and Stephens' coach, David Nainkin, later suggested that Azarenka had "bent" the rules to shift the momentum.
Other analysts and coaches were also skeptical, including Patrick McEnroe, the ESPN analyst who also is the head of the U.S. Tennis Association's player development program.
But Azarenka, while accepting blame for the timing of the medical timeout, insisted that she was suffering not just from anxiety but from a legitimate injury: a rib problem that she was told was affecting her breathing.
And she spent much of her off day Friday making the rounds to various news media outlets in an effort to re-emphasize that she had not fabricated an injury or intentionally disrupted Stephens' rhythm.
"What happened with Sloane, it was a big deal for sure," she said. "It came out as a big deal." n