Monday, 28 January 2013

Fragile Psychologies

The mind is a curious thing, its engine constantly rumbling as it cranks the body into motion while simultaneously firing its synapses to course through the subconscious, stoking positives and negatives in an individual's thoughts.  Nowhere was it more in evidence than on Rod Laver arena on Saturday evening, as defending champion Victoria Azarenka took on China's Li Na for the chance to lift the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Trophy in 2013.

The psychologies underlying this match must begin back on the Terre Battue of Roland Garros in 2011 when Li Na overcame a career of nearly-but-not-quite to become to first Asian winner of a grand slam title.  It was a feat that demanded a celebration, but the bender that Li went on might have bagged her a cosy £11 million in sponsorship money, but cost her a year on tennis tour as focuses shifted and results slumped.  Pulling herself back into contention involved a swapping out of her husband Jiang Shan as coach for Carlos Rodriguez, a partnership that appeared to work in her favour as she lifted her first title in 16 months towards the end of 2012.  Another 3 months later and Li finds herself in her second slam final after a near-perfect route through the draw and playing some of the most consistent, aggressive tennis of her career.  With both Agnieszka Radwanska and, more convincingly, Maria Sharapova left in her wake at the tournament she headed into the final as the form player, beloved by the home crowd for her winsome smile and candidly humorous interviews.

Contrastingly, Victoria Azarenka endured another tournament as the pantomime villain.  In 2012, she riled spectators by complaining to the chair umpire about the noise generated by a fly-by, causing sections of the crowd to mimic her sustained grunts as she attempted to hit the ball.  With the crowds soon tiring of this tactic she marched through her matches with youthful indifference before memorably bagging 12 games in a row in the final to thwart the campaign of former champion Sharapova.  The love of the crowd apparently inconsequential to her.

A year later she's back in the final, but instead of being greeted with the reverence deserving of a defending champion, she went into the match on a bed of controversy following some questionable actions during her semi-final encounter with American teenager Sloane Stephens.  Millimetres from the finish, but with a last ditch effort from Stephens paying dividends for the youngster, Azarenka picked the most inopportune moment to call a medical time-out.  Disappearing off court for close to 10 minutes, the Belorussian reappeared to break the American's serve in the very next match to take the win.  Protesting that she was struck with nerves, and needed time to calm herself in the wake of Stephens' challenge, did little to repair her standing with the fans, as she sacrificed her popularity for the sake of victory.

In this post-Armstrong climate, where the mantra of "win at all costs" has become tainted with deceit, Azarenka's actions came across to many as arrogant ruthlessness.  Even if it was an honest time-out, the timing of it will always be scrutinised as gamesmanship.  And although Azarenka's mistake, her PR nightmare, is by no means comparable to any of the deceptions perpetrated by Lance Armstrong, his legacy has meant that we now will our sportsmen and women to conduct themselves impeccably, to dispel any notions of unpleasantness or underhandedness - be those notions chemical, aggressive or, in Azarenka's case, psychological.

Arriving on the court on Saturday evening, Li was greeted with the cheers of an adoring crowd.  They loved the way she had played, they loved the way she had behaved throughout the tournament and they were excited that she would play on their court and in their final.  Contrastingly, the cheer for Azarenka was noticeably more muted.

It was a token applause that carried itself through the first set.  Li had the backing of vast portions of the 15000-strong crowd, while Azarenka had to suffer the ignominy of ironic whooping and applause after each of her errors and double faults.  Inevitably the first set went the way of the Chinese seed, as her heavy, accurate baseline game proved too powerful for Azarenka to handle.  With Li the more aggressive player, moving athletically and anticipating the Belorussian's tactics, it was unsurprising that the opening set went the way of the #6 seed 46.

The reception Azarenka received was undoubtedly a shock to her, even after the sarcastic ribbing of 2012.  It inevitably tightened her shots, while relieving the pressure on Li allowing her to swing freely, aggressively dictating the points and the rallies as the World #1 cracked under unexpected emotions.

However, an early break for Azarenka in the second set suggested that the contest wasn't quite over yet, before serendipitous happenings conspired to twist the final in unforeseen ways.  On a surface where Serena Williams had earlier that fortnight rolled her ankle and nearly ended her challenge, Li was to trip while retrieving a ground stroke, putting all the weight on her left ankle and in need of a medical time-out to repair the bruised foot.  An irony in more ways than one, it primarily made Azarenka the player now sitting in her tracksuit top while Li received treatment from the physio.  However, it was also to preempt the outcome of the match as it stripped from Li the main attribute that had allowed her to claim the first set from her opponent - her agility and foot speed.

After returning, gingerly, to the baseline to continue the match, Li gradually saw the set slip away from her as Azarenka exploited her caution, constantly wrong-footing her with some carefully placed corner balls.  The second set went to the World #1 64.

An even greater oddity then crept into proceedings as the match was paused while fireworks lit up the Melbourne sky in honour of Australia Day.  With the 10-minute (what else) break over, Li and Azarenka returned to the court before the Chinese star took a second, disastrous tumble on the same ankle, whacking her head on the hard court surface and receiving more medical treatment as the trainers checked for signs of concussion.  Smiling her way through the mishap, as Azarenka, karmaically, had to endure more tracksuit time, Li heroically continued on.  But the psychological small step slower that she had endured through much of the second set had morphed into a giant leap of wariness by the time Victoria Azarenka wrapped up the third set 63 to claim her second successive Australian Open title.

Playing victorious in the atmosphere of a vitriolic crowd would have made holding the trophy aloft all the more sweeter for the 23-year old.  She came through a controversial campaign to join Serena and Venus Williams, Maria Sharapova and Svetlana Kuznetsova as the only active players on the tour to claim multiple slam titles.  It will always be mooted how much the two spills upset Li Na's rhythm and caused her to play and move more tentatively as the match went on.  Unmistakably, though, Azarenka showed great fortitude to be affected as minimally as she did.  It may not have been the result that too many people wanted, but it was a champion's resolve that ultimately won the title for the World Number 1.

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