Lonely at the Top

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MELBOURNE—There were fireworks, flags, cookouts, costumes, and other sights and sounds of Australia Day all over downtown here this evening, but the fun never penetrated Rod Laver Arena. Victoria Azarenka’s 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 win over Li Na in the Aussie Open final was competitive, dramatic, and full of surprises, but it was played in one of the grimmest spirits I can remember for a Grand Slam final. 

Azarenka, cast as the villain after her Medical Timeout Scorned Around the World, walked on to scattered boos and a vague, floating disdain. The Australian crowd didn’t seem to know exactly what to do with Vika, but they certainly weren’t going to root for her. Four minutes into the match, someone yelled, “Please be quiet, Azarenka!” A little later, another, slightly wittier heckler called, “Take a deep breath, Vicky.” In one corner of the arena, a man held up a sign that read, “Cheaterenka.” It wasn’t a warm welcome, but at least Vika wasn’t in Paris, where the locals really know how to drive a pariah off a tennis court. As she said after the match, “I was expecting way worse.”

You would have thought that the beneficiary of this relative ill will would have been Azarenka’s opponent, Li, who went from being a well-liked comedienne to an adopted daughter of Australia (Aussie Na?) simply by standing on the other side of the net from Vika. Unfortunately, Li couldn’t seem to remain standing for long. Down 1-3 in the second set, she turned her ankle and had to get it taped. Scarier was her fall at 2-1 in the third set, on the first point after play had been suspended for a fireworks display, when she turned her ankle again and hit her head, hard, on the cement. She said later that, “for two seconds I couldn’t see anything.”

Not that Li couldn’t find a laugh in it. Afterward, asked why she had fallen, she yelled in mock exasperation, “Because I’m stupid!!!”

For the majority of its three sets, the match was scratchy, nervy, and mistake-prone. Only in the last half of the third did the rallies begin to find a spark. There were 16 breaks of serve in 29 games. Azarenka made 28 unforced errors against 18 winners; Li was significantly worse, with 57 errors and 36 winners. But what cost Li—aside, of course, from the falls on court—was the timing of those errors.

All week we had heard about Li's improved mental state, about how she was more mature and relaxed on court. And mostly she was. But as in 2011 here, when it came time to close out a Grand Slam final, Li couldn’t do it. In the second set, she fought back from 0-3 to 4-4, only to botch an overhead, put an easy backhand in the net, and lose her serve. Up 2-1 in the third set, she squandered a break point. Down 3-4, she earned another break point, only to pull up nervously on a backhand return and sail it long. Li played well, until she had to play well.

When it was over, she sat and cried. And you could understand why. Since 2006, no woman who has won the first set of a Grand Slam final has gone on to lose it except for her, both times at the Australian Open, in 2011 and 2013. By the time she reached the interview room, though, she had gathered herself.

“After the match I was sad because I lose the match,” Li said. “But after I cool down I was feeling happy about my tennis, because right now I still play well on the court.”

She even dipped into recent tennis history to find a bright side, citing the examples of Ana Ivanovic in 2008 and Maria Sharapova last year as players who lost the final in Melbourne and went on to win the French Open five months later. Li should know that it's possible: She did the same thing herself two years ago.

The crowd was behind Li all the way. A few of her winners inspired roars that rivaled the ones for Roger Federer from the previous night. She said she felt as if she were at the China Open. But beyond the situation with Vika, you could understand Li's appeal by watching how she took this very tough loss. The tears were real, but the smiles were as well. She’s an athlete who reminds us that tennis can be emotional and crushing in the moment, but is still just a game in the long run. Li isn’t always strong when she plays, and she showed that again tonight when she tightened up. But in her larger perspective, in the way she laughed off her head-bruising fall and looked forward to better things in Paris, she is strong. Her humor is strength.

It would be easy to draw a moral line between Li’s attitude and that of her opponent's tonight. And it’s true, Azarenka isn't a popular or personable or seemingly very interesting champion. She tries periodic charm offenses with tennis fans, but they’re usually awkward and fall flat. After her convincing, grown-up loser’s speech and press conference at the U.S. Open last fall, I thought she had turned a corner. But she gave all of that back in Melbourne over the last three days. Tonight she admitted to the difficulties she’s had expressing herself over the years.

“When I first came on tour,” Azarenka said, “I was kind of lost a little bit. I didn’t know how to open up my personality. It’s very difficult when you’re alone. I first went to the States when I was 10 years old. That’s my thing [now], to show the personality that I really have, outside the court as well.”

Vika said she learned from her experience in her semifinal match, learned that she needed to make sure people understood the truth, whatever it is, and that she needs to express it better. Her words sounded good and were believable, though I didn’t like that she also said of her timeout against Sloane Stephens, “It came out as a big deal, [but] it wasn’t a big deal on the court.” Whether or not Stephens waves it off now, it was a big deal, and it affected that match. Azarenka should recognize that. (Saying that doesn't mean she cheated; it just means that her timeout mattered.)

If other long-term champions of the past are any guide, Vika will become more comfortable in public, will learn what's cool and not cool to do, and find some acceptance among fans. What I liked about her victory speech and press conference tonight was that she rescued herself from villiany without groveling. She finished her speech by saying she would always remember this court—both her win, and the boos, was the implication. 

For now, what matters is what Azarenka does inside the lines on that court. There you don’t have to be nice or popular. Tonight Vika played much the way she spoke; she reined in her worst behavior and most annoying antics, but still stuck to her guns and her grunts.

When she picked up the balls to serve at 4-3 in the third, the crowd roared against her. When she lost the first point, the crowd roared more loudly. Vika bowed her head for a second and took an extra breath. I thought it was going to be tough from there, but I had the feeling that she was the tougher of the two players, and she was. Blocking everything out except the ball, Azarenka went about her business with a grim resolve that was appropriate for this evening.

We like to say that tennis, as an individual sport, forces us to be resourceful, to find an inner reserve, to do things on our own. Wins don’t come much more individual than Azarenka’s tonight. She did it, as much as any player ever has, alone.

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