By Jane Voigt
Victoria Azarenka broke down in tears and threw a towel over her head seconds after a cool handshake with a disappointed Li Na at the net.
Azarenka had won her second Australian Open, the first slam of the year, and had retained her #1 ranking, but with controversy and skeptical support from crowds and the media. Her tears had been damned up like water against a dam.
She hung her head as she took a lonely looking walk across Rod Laver Stadium to her box. The trek seemed endless to many … probably more so to the new champion. However, she was greeted with warmth and fuzzinesses she absolutely needed. Otherwise the girl may have collapsed, prompting yet another medical time out.
“You’re a champion, enjoy this one,” Sam Sumyk, her coach, told her sincerely.
“We love you,” another said, reaching down the high stadium walls as Victoria stretched her fingertips upward to touch her friend’s. “You deserve it.”
Azarenka took a couple minutes off court to compose herself before awards were presented. By then, Li Na and Vika had relaxed and were laughing merrily with each other. The relief for both must have been extraordinary.
“It’s been a real long two weeks for me,” Azarenka told the 17,000 seated in the stadium. “But, I will keep it short.”
No one needed to hear the details. They had been splashed over local, national and international media for the last two days. But as much as she tried to realign her image during her speech, wishing all a happy Australia Day, she waited until the end to congratulate Li Na.
This final and entire tournament on the women’s side, which Azarenka won 46 64 63, raised the level of consciousness of a player’s character.
This evening in Melbourne Park they did play their best tennis, we have to believe, although most would agree other finals have been of a higher quality.
In the last 24 of 25 women’s singles finals at a major, the woman who won the first set won the bigger trophy. Not today and not in 2006, Steve Tignor tweeted. Li Na won the first set in her loss to Kim Clijsters in 2011. And that’s what happened this evening.
There were massive numbers of unforced errors from both, but many more from Li Na: 57 to 28 . And there were 30 breaks of serve between the #1 and #6 seeds. Azarenka broke serve in the first game of all three sets, but never could hold the advantage. Li broke Azarenka three times in the first set, to win it on the third as Azarenka double faulted away the set.
Li was the one, though, that elevated character above tennis. She is the one who blinded the world with bravery and determination, after she not once but twice twisted her left ankle, the second time smacking her head on the court so hard her visor flew off as medics flew to her rescue and attended what could have been a concussion.
But funny Li Na sat up and smiled as the doctor moved her index finger from left to right to watch Li’s eyes. Her second medical time out began. ‘A legitimate time out,’ L. Jon Wertheim tweeted.
Li Na was surprised to have reached the final, or so she said in her award’s speech. She was pushed, and “Things not bad. I should shut up.”
In her press conference she was asked why she fell down twice. Li said, “because I’m stupid,” followed by laughter.
But to have suffered through two ankle bites and a head smack, and take it to three sets against the newly-crowned #1 player in the world and Australian Open champion was a magnificent display of fortitude, adrenalin surges, and hunger for victory.
Li will be 32 next month. She told the press she was happy about her tennis, and mentioned how Maria Sharapova, Ana Ivanovic and herself lost the Australian Open and went on to win Roland Garros in 2011. Her age, though, still provoked a question about retirement.
“When I can’t play I will stop,” she said. “You never know. When I wake up and I can’t move any more I will retire.”
You can bet Victoria Azarenka will not contemplate retirement, at the young age of 23. She has proven herself as best in the world, if not the most well liked.
She, too, should be given credit for courage and determination.
Her performance over the two weeks was not first rate yet she played through to her second Slam title. Trying to close out a match against the crowd favorite and a multi-injured comic relief called for a mental toughness the strength of a vault. To have kept composed and swing out took guts.
Like her friends said, “You deserve this.”