Top seed Victoria Azarenka had many opponents yesterday in her quest to defend her Australian Open title. The world number 1 had to fight the wind, the sports media, the crowd, and, of course, Li Na. Before the match began, ESPN went to great lengths to set up a black hat/white hat scenario between Azarenka and Li. Commentators took turns talking about how the media and Australian fans consider Azarenka a bad sport because of her ten-minute medical break toward the end of her semifinal against Sloane Stephens. They went on and on about it, "examining" it from this angle, then that angle.
They had some good fortune, too, in that Li was available to wear the "white hat." Li is a beloved figure. Is there anyone who isn't totally enthralled with her? (If you happen to be the one person who isn't totally enthralled with Li Na, please keep it to yourself.) But just imagine if Agnieszka Radwanska had gotten to the final (something that had seemed quite possible until she faced Li): There's no way the ESPN crew could have set up a hero/villain contrast between Azarenka and and the continually sniping Polish star. But with Li, they were good to go.
Darren Cahill had lost a bet with Judy Murray, so he wore a kilt. He was supposed to wear it throughout the men's final, but he backed out. Over and over, the winner of the bet was referred to as "Andy Murray's mother." She is Andy Murray's mother, and proudly so. But Judy Murray is a tennis personality and authority in her own right, but not once was she acknowledged as anything but a player's mother.
Before I talk about the match (really, I'm going to), I want to say something good about ESPN. That's a rare thing, so bear with me. A study about media attitude toward women's sports that many of you may have seen a year or two ago pointed out how different the metaphors are when commentators and writers refer to male athletes and female athletes. Only the men are called "warriors" and are described using extended warrior metaphor.
ESPN broke that mold in its pre-match production piece, which featured the "defender" and the "contender," and presented a number of lengthy statements made by the players that were all about fighting, battle, warrior mentality, and the destruction of an opponent. Even the music was "warrior-like." I think this was probably a first in women's sports, and it was done really well. Neither Li nor Azarenka appeared passive, "pleasant" or "feminine" in the piece. Rather, each looked like she was ready to kick some ass at any cost.
Right before the match began, Azarenka came out of the tunnel with hoodie on and earphones in, accepted her bouquet, and solemnly walked to the court. There were no dreary "leaving the tunnel" interviews--just Azarenka and Li. When Li stepped onto the court, the crowd went wild, and it would continue to go wild for her throughout the match. Azarenka was given a chilly reception, and that was the kindest crowd response she received until the very end. After all, the Australian crowd disliked her even before the semifinal medical break incident occurred. Several times during the match, chair umpire Alison Lang had to ask the crowd to back off. They cheered Azarenka's unforced errors, and consumed her double faults with unbridled glee. Some hurled insults at her. Only the tossing of rotten fruit was missing from the scenario.
Azarenka chose to receive, and Li immediately double-faulted. Li followed the double-fault with a forehand winner up the line. She was broken, but immediately broke back. The improved forehand was already cracking, and the serve out wide to the ad court--which would benefit Li repeatedly throughout the match--was already in place.
Li missed an overhead when she attempted to go up 3-1, and was broken. There were then three holds in a row, but none from the "against the wind" end. That wouldn't happen for a long time. Li held at love to go up 5-2. Azarenka then held, and on her next serve, Li went down 0-40 because she repeatedly "over-hit" potential (actually, obvious) winners; she was broken at 15.
On Azarenka's serve, Li hit a forehand cross-court winner to get a set point, but she hit the next ball long. Azarenka then hit a forehand cross-court winner (her first forehand winner, in fact) to gain an ad point. Li saves it--again with a forehand cross-court winner, but the second set point is saved by a stunning volley from the Azarenka racket. Li got a third set point with a backhand winner, but again hits long. On her fourth set point, Li was able to convert and take the set at 6-4 when Azarenka double-faulted.
The importance of taking the first set off of the world number 1 is well known. When Azarenka wins the first set, she wins the whole thing. She has done this 70 consecutive times.
The second set began like the first, with Li's serve getting broken, despite having a game point. Li then had a break point when Azarenka double-faulted, but she hit a lob long and Azarenka was able to hold. The players then exchanged breaks. Then, serving at 1-3, Li attempted to do a quick change of direction with her feet, fell down, and rolled her ankle. She was examined, then had the ankle wrapped. When she returned to the court, she won the game.
At this point, Azarenka was unable to keep the ball in the court, and went down 0-40. But Li was unable to capitalize on this opportunity, and Azarenka held. The crowd had become quite noisy by this time, and Li complained to the chair umpire about people yelling during a point. In a situation like this, people often say that the complaining player "shouldn't let it get to her," but noise made during a point usually does interfere with a player's concentration, and it's something the umpire should handle before a player has to make a complaint.
Somewhat shaken, Li double-faulted twice in a row, but managed not only to hold her serve, but to break her opponent for 4-all. But then the Chinese player began having trouble with net clearance, and made two unforced errors on her own serve. She was broken, and Azarenka held at love to take the second set 6-4.
In the final set, Li was again broken in her first game, but broke back. Li then held her next service game, but the players had to take a break because the Australia Day fireworks show had started. During the break, Azarenka chatted with the trainer. And--as if the proceedings weren't already strange enough--when the players returned to the court and began playing, Li fell down again, this time, hitting her head on the hard court.
Li got a brief neuro exam to check for concussion (something Azarenka knows all about), and was cracking up as she had to follow the physio's finger and answer questions to determine her orientation. She returned to the match to face a break point, but held with yet another serve out wide.
Azarenka would go on to argue with the chair umpire about a replay decision, and she would also go on to hold the first service game played from the "bad" end of the court. Li served at 3-5 and Azarenka won the match by converting her first break point on Li's serve. A big part of Li's collapse in form was the trouble she had with her footwork in the second half of the match. Was she consciously or unconsciously guarding her injured ankle? That seems likely, and if she was dealing with nerves, that would have made the situation even worse.
After the players shook hands, Azarenka--instead of falling onto the court (there had probably been enough falling onto the court already) and then celebrating her victory--walked to her seat, sat down, and wept. It had been a very long 48 hours. After a while, she went to her box and greeted her team. Then she returned to the court and acknowledged the crowd, but the acknowledgment was very brief. They had been against her the entire match, and--while they were polite once the match was finished--Azarenka knew there was no point in pushing the issue.
To add insult to injury, Azarenka's trophy was engraved incorrectly, with the abbreviation for Belgium on it instead of the abbreviation for Belarus.
In defeating Li Na, Victoria Azarenka not only defended her Australian Open final; she locked in the number 1 ranking. Li, for her part, is now a two-time Australian Open runner-up. She's playing very well, however, with new finesse in her forehand, and has to be considered a contender at the French Open, a tournament she won in 2011.
Last year, when Azarenka won in Melbourne, I shared the significant parallel between her persona and that of Queen Victoria's. "The important thing is not what they think of me, but what I think of them." Indeed.