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Friday, 25 January 2013
Putting it to a Public Vote
If tomorrow's Women's Singles Final was a popularity contest, an X-Factor or Strictly Come Dancing with a "text now to vote for your favourite" format for example, Li Na would already have been handed the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup.
Yet although Li Na's love affair with Australia began with her final run in 2011, when she lost out to the Kim Clijsters comeback tour, and has seen her ingratiate herself with the crowd through her improving English and quirkily humourous on-court interviews, the reason why she will find the majority of the 15000 spectators of the Rod Laver Arena in her corner on Saturday will be less a result of anything she can control and more to do with the unpopularity of her opponent.
Despite being the defending champion, and throughout the course of 2012 making giant leaps to increase her favour with the general tennis public, Victoria Azarenka remains one of the more controversial figures on the tennis tour today. An unapologetic exponent of the "grunt" (comedian Chris Ramsey suggested on Twitter that her withering shrieks were akin to someone "putting cigarettes out on the Easter Bunny"), Azarenka further alienated herself from the Melbourne hoards this year by taking an extended 10-minute medical time-out during her two set victory over American teenager Sloane Stephens. At the time, the Belorussian was 61 53 40-15 up against her semi-final opponent. But Stephens began to rally to save match points a total of 5 times during the game, before bringing up a game point of her own and duly converting, drawing the set back onto serve. As the players returned to the chairs at the change of ends, the #1 seed called for the trainer, and after a quick analysis they disappeared into the locker room for some additional treatment. 10 minutes later, 10 minutes that Sloane Stephens spent waiting on the side of the court before what wass possibly the most important service game of her career so far, Azarenka re-emerged from back stage. A confusing situation, for spectators, and likely for Stephens, saw the American broken immediately to hand the match to Azarenka 61 64.
The ensuing criticism for Azarenka'a actions suggests that there was an element of gamesmanship in the top seed's actions, that the renewed vigour in Stephens' game pulling her back into the set and gaining some momentum, was enough of a threat to cause Azarenka to dawdle at the changeover, upsetting her opponent's rhythm and stealing back the ascendancy in the match. Azarenka countered this in the after-match press conference by saying that Stephens' fightback was causing panic attacks and that she felt as though she would have been unable to finish the match due to hyperventilation. She also said that she had only taken a single (allowed) medical timeout, and that the trainer had over-run the time, and that she was on the verge of choking away her shot at a second straight Australian Open final. She then continued to repeat this at numerous occasions over the past day with more excuses each time, perhaps protesting too much.
The only person who knows the true story, the reasons for and the nature of the treatment that was administered is Azarenka herself, so it is her version of events that should be accepted as valid. Regardless of whether you believe the defending champion or think that there was some underhand tactics to her decision to pick that moment to request treatment for her problems, it has had the effect of overshadowing this year's final, and throwing into the shade the efforts of her opponent to reach the occasion.
Li Na has been something of a silent assassin at this year's Australian Open. Her semi-final opponent, Maria Sharapova pulled all the headlines for an unparallelled dominance that saw her romp through her first five matches with the loss of just 9 games, making to the SF with just 6 hours of court play under her belt. Li Na's most newsworthy moment came during her quarter-final defeat of #4 seed Aga Radwanska, when a shocking mistime saw her shank a serve high into the crowds. Laughing it off on court showed just how far the Chinese player has come after wading through the slump that followed her French Open title in 2011. Gone is the Li Na whose mental fragility was writ all over her excruciating first round losses. And what has taken its place is a renewed aggression, coupled with unwavering determination. Perhaps a product of her work with her recent post-Olympic coaching appointment, Carlos Rodriguez, the rocking ship has steadied to see Li Na returning to some of the form that saw her through to the '11 Australian Open final, and her first slam title later that spring.
Like Sharapova, Li Na advanced to the semi-final without the loss of a set, her sternest test coming from the young German Julia Goerges, who pushed the Chinese star to a 75 first set. Yet the ruthlessness with which she dispatched her quarter-final opponent, Radwanska, with such controlled aggression, should have indicated that the match against last year's beaten finalist wouldn't be a foregone conclusion. In fact, it was exactly the opposite, with Li Na the dominant player, and Sharapova the shaky pretender. A solid display of (thankfully more accurate) serving, some inspired shot play and ground strokes that upset the rhythm of the #2 seed, made Sharapova visibly rattled and unable to gain any traction in the match, Li Na running out a surprisingly easy winner 62 62 in just over 90 minutes.
Going in to her match against the Belorussian tomorrow, Li Na may tail her opponent 4-5 in the head to head, but has looked the more solid player. And whatever flakiness tickled Azarenka in her semi-final, it is more revealing that she has already lost a set during the tournament during her third round encounter with the unseeded Jamie Hampton. An Azarenka victory may have been the outcome that day, but should a similar lapse in concentration occur tomorrow, the calibre of Li Na may not allow the Belorussian an opportunity to regain a foothold in the match. Both players have racked up recent defeats of the other, Li Na in an exhibition in Asia during the off-season, but more crucially, Azarenka defeating the Chinese player during the Year End Cup in Istanbul. On that occasion, Li Na was within touching distance of an early lead, serving for the first set at 54 in her favour, but ultimately threw it away with some sloppy play. Azarenka was to take the match and the place in the next round.
Calling Saturday's final will be a difficult pick to make. Azarenka is undefeated on the Australian continent for 2 years, while Li Na has only been beaten at the Australian Open since 2010 by one player - Kim Clijsters. And although Azarenka may feel the wrath of an antipathetic crowd under the lights of the Rod Laver Arena, there is a sense that her thick skin allows her to thrive within such an environment. The crucial factor, though, should be that the Li Na who faces her on the weekend is mentally tougher than she has ever been, and will be aware that at 8 years Azarenka's senior may not have too many more opportunities to add to the solitary Slam trophy currently sitting in her cabinet. She will be many people's favourite to win, and will have the crowd to lift her to what could be a thoroughly deserved victory.
Match prediction: Li Na to win the Australian Open 2013