The Australian Open women’s final pits the defending champion and No. 1 Victoria Azarenka against 2011 finalist Li Na, in a match that offers both a chance to join Serena Williams, Venus Williams, Maria Sharapova and Svetlana Kuznetsova as the only active players with more than one Slam.
For Azarenka, it hasn’t been as complicated on the court as it’s been off of it (see photo above). She’s faced only one seed in her six matches, No. 29 Sloane Stephens in Thursday’s semifinals. No. 6 Li ousted No. 4 Agnieszka Radwanska and No. 2 Maria Sharapova and hasn’t lost a set all tournament. The last time Li beat two top-five players at a tournament she won it. That would be the 2011 French Open.
On form, you have to give the slight edge to Li, though Azarenka leads the head-to head 5-4 and is on a 20-match win streak in January matches. Her last January loss was at the Australian Open in 2011 to … Li. In fact, Li is 2-0 against her at Slams, though Azarenka has won their last four matches.
The final will begin at 3:30 a.m. ET/12:30 a.m. PT on ESPN.
Azarenka has to put the last 48 hours behind her: You know the film: Man wakes up. Man has no idea who he is. Man spends all day dealing with a tragedy that he doesn’t understand. Man goes to sleep. Man wakes up. Man has no idea who he is. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Azarenka has been getting hammered for the controversial end to her semifinal. She took a 10-minute medical timeout before Stephens was to serve to stay in the match. She was grilled by the media in her post-match press conference and reams of paper (real and metaphorical in this digital world) have been dedicated to calling her a cheat, a liar and the face of gamesmanship. Her PR machine has been in full swing to mitigate the damage. Azarenka spent part of her off-day Friday sitting down with members of the media trying to diffuse the situation.
So the best thing Azarenka can do is to go to bed and wake up forgetting it happened. Given how much Li is beloved in Melbourne — thanks to her final run here in 2011 and her charming post-match interviews — and how awkwardly silent the stadium was after Azarenka beat Stephens in the semifinals, the crowd will be firmly and loudly behind Li. They will mimic Azarenka’s shrieks. They will boo her fistpumps. Any outburst from her will be met with whistles. She should prepare as if she’s the most hated woman in Melbourne.
But if there is any player on either tour who is used to having a crowd firmly against her, it’s Azarenka. Her whooping grunt and pugilistic finger-pointing and tongue-wagging has rarely endeared herself to the Aussie crowd. That reaction seems to fuel the chip on her shoulder. Embrace it. Use it. To quote that old reality show cliche: Victoria Azarenka isn’t here to make friends. She’s here to win.
Her best bet is to take the crowd out of the match early by racing to an early lead. She’s on a 41-match win streak when she wins the first set. A quick start could leave Li reeling.
• Will the real Li please stand up?: At her best, Li is better. But it’s always been a question of consistency, not just match to match but game to game, point to point. She played perfect tennis to stymie a streaking Sharapova in the semifinal 6-2, 6-2. That match was closer than the scoreline; Sharapova repeatedly had game points on her own serve and couldn’t convert. The question is whether Li can bring that same level against Azarenka and hold her nerve on big points. If this truly is a new and improved Li under new coach Carlos Rodriguez, I tip her to win this match. Emphasis on “if.”
• Li’s forehand encore: Li’s forehand was always a weapon, the only question is weather it would do damage to her opponent or herself. So the biggest revelation from the semifinals was the surprising resiliency of the Li forehand. It’s a shot that Rodriguez has been working on with her. If the Sharapova match is any indication, it could be the difference between another erratic season and one that sees her deep into the second week of Slams all year. It’s been the go-to wing for her opponents throughout her career, but that tactic proved Sharapova’s undoing. Li absorbed her power on the forehand side and stayed in rallies. She’ll have to do the same Saturday.
• The battle for depth: Though Li has a bit more firepower and therefore more of an eye toward offense, both women hug the baseline, take the ball incredibly early and try to get the ball deep on their opponents to get a short ball they can terminate. Azarenka is particularly good at this, and if Li can’t back her off the baseline she’ll stand there and run her ragged all day long. And we know how much Madame Li hates running.
• No. 1 ranking on the line: The scenario is simple for Azarenka. Win and she stays No. 1. Lose and Serena Williams overtakes her on Monday. The reality is Serena will likely take it at some point this spring. Azarenka is defending 4,150 points through March (thanks to her 26-win start to 2012) while Serena is defending a mere 650.
PREDICTION: Li in three sets.