Australian Open: Azarenka d. Li

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Victoria Azarenka won the Australian Open title today because. . . well, because somebody had to, and as the bizarre and oft-interrupted match went on, it was impossible to avoid the growing conviction that it wasn’t going to be Li Na.

Going into this match, 24 of the past 25 major finals had been won by the woman who won the first set, the exception being the 2011 final in Melbourne—in which Li took the opener against Kim Clijsters but went on to lose. This time, she lost, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, in what seemed an interminable two hours and 42 minutes, thanks partly to three major interruptions that ate up close to half an hour. One was a 10-plus minute break for an Australia Day fireworks display, the others a pair of injury timeouts taken by Li, each occasioned by a rolled ankle (the second resulted in Li banging the back of her head on the court as she took a spill).

The irony was delicious, for Azarenka had become a pariah in Melbourne after she took a 10-minute injury timeout near the end of her semifinal for, basically, choking away five match points (although the official, post-facto reason was that a rib somehow interfered with her breathing—a somewhat novel handicap). Everyone—the press, players, the public—piled on Azarenka for that stunt, but tonight she was the beneficiary of a classic case of karma.

That Azarenka weathered all these distractions, as well as periods of excellent play by Li, was a testament to her patience and grit as a competitor. After all, she was playing with the entire population of Melbourne seemingly pulling for her to lose, not just her Australian Open title but the No. 1 ranking (had Li won, Serena Williams would have leapfrogged her on Monday).

So, how do you find turning points in a match that featured 16 breaks of serve on a whopping 30 break points? Or one in which the loser hit exactly twice the number of winners as the champion (36 to 18) but more than twice the number of unforced errors as well (57 to 28)?

The answer is simple: You don’t. What you do is cut to the chase, which in this case is that, just as control of the match between Andy Murray and Roger Federer yesterday rested in the hands of Murray, Li was the one who called the tune through this entire final. The big difference is that Murray won, and Li did not.

If you’re a glass half-full type, you can justly argue that Azarenka did what she had to do—she hung in there, shut out the hate, and simply played better when it really counted. The key stat that will back you up is that she converted 75 percent of her break points (9 of 12), while Li managed to cash in on just 39 percent (7 for 18).

Beyond that stat, my feeling throughout the match—and I can only imagine how frustrating this must have been for Li fans—was that on numerous occasions, Li was in a position to take control of the scoreboard as well as the tone, and that was precisely when she was most prone to suffer a letdown, or make a puzzling, unforced error.

Li has had a long history of flirting with disaster and seemingly undercutting her own chances just when they seemed best; somehow, she retained that penchant for self-injury despite the conspicuous improvements Carlos Rodriguez has engineered in her forehand and serve, as well as the self-control she’s also developed under his nurture.

The best example I can think of occurred with Li up a set but trailing by a break at 2-3 in the second. This sequence of events occurred right after she took her first spill and had the trainer tape up her ankle. She returned to play with the score 30-15 and immediately fired a pair of backhand winners that sounded like rifle shots to hold the game.

A discombobulated Azarenka fell behind 0-40 in the next game. Poetic justice freaks couldn’t help but sense the irony, given the controversy Azarenka had created with her timeout in her previous match.  Azarenka won the next two points, though, with bold tennis. In the final, ensuing break point, Li drove Azarenka way off the court during a searing rally—but then whacked a ridiculously easy backhand into the top of the net instead of the empty court. Azarenka ripped through the rest of that game and never trailed by a break the rest of the way.

And what a long way it was. It seemed almost redundant when they interrupted the match after three games of the third set for the fireworks, and then to top it off, Li fell again while leading 2-1 as soon as they resumed play, and had to be checked for a concussion. Azarenka held serve when play resumed, and broke Li in the next game.

Li would have one more solid chance to earn back the break, with Azarenka serving at 4-3. She won the first two points (for what seemed like the 89th time in the match), but then failed to return a second serve with her strongest shot, the backhand. It was an emblematic shot, and a harbinger of an end that came quickly enough in the next game, fittingly ending this festival of breaks with one more failure to hold.

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