AO 12.0 - Justine Casts Her Shadow Over Melbourne
No, La Petit Taureau hasn't announced another comeback. Although, a case be made that Justine Henin, even in retirement, is back... and has managed to find a way to trump Kim Clijsters one more time, too.
Sure, Clijsters became an Australian Open champion AFTER having a baby. But Henin, WHILE pregnant AND retired, has managed to find a way to be linked in discussion, in various ways, with BOTH women's singles finalists at this AO.
Top that, Kim.
After helping Henin reach twelve grand slam finals, Justine's longtime coach, Carlos Rodriguez, has now guided Li Na to their first as a duo after about six months, and one important offseason, of working together. In doing so, Henin will be referenced in the early going of any talk about the Spaniard and the Chinese veteran's so-far successful working relationship. Good job, Justine. (And here I thought Backspin wasn't going to be able to say something like that ever again!)
But, hold on. I'm not finished.
While LPT was the "Face of Backspin" for years, Vika Azarenka's run to last year's title in Melbourne led to her being the "New" face of this spot, largely because of the blowback some of her actions, on court and off (just like Henin), often caused. I've never been in more "defense mode" than when feeling like I had to explain some of Henin's more questionable (in some quarters) actions throughout her career. It was often a chore, but I relished the opportunity to talk about the traits of a player whose #1 thought was always to win, no holds barred or tactics ruled out. The whole "Whack-a-Vika" atmosphere that developed around last year's AO made the Belarusian seem as worthy of defense here as Henin ever was, as the funky soon-to-be-#1 player was a sort who reminded me so much of Justine. Both, at their best, didn't and don't particularly care how they're perceived, and that simple fact made and makes it easy for others to attack, condemn, mock (in Vika's case with her on-court noise, especially by those "sporting" Aussie fans Down Under) or criticize. I, though, often choose to defend that sort of player. And will continue to do so, too.
Yesterday's "controversy" is another good example. Azarenka's extended "timeout" after nearly committing the self-described "choke of the year," when she failed to convert five match points late in the 2nd set against Sloane Stephens, put many people into an uproar after the semifinal match concluded. Some called it "cheating," or "bush league" or whatever catchy thing they could think of. First off, all right, Vika more than stretched the rules to allow herself to get back to a place where she could compete. But if the loophole exists, then she broke no actual rule -- "spirit of the rule" doesn't count in love, war or grand slam tennis, after all. And if she did break some aspect of a rule, then blame the umpire or someone else for not enforcing it. Gamesmanship, or in this case, gameswomanship, is part of what makes a champion a champion. That it rubbed so many people the wrong way? Oh, I LOVE it. As I've always said, the tour sometimes needs a player who wears a perceived "black hat," even if it's an overstatement to say that about a player like Azarenka, or even Henin (who also brought criticism upon herself in Melbourne when she retired in an AO final against Amelie Mauresmo). It makes things interesting.
Thing is, I really don't think Vika WANTS to be seen that way. As she began to show at last year's U.S. Open, where the fans gradually warmed up to her (really, in some ways, she's the perfect player to win in the sometimes-prickly New York atmosphere, and I truly hope she does soon), she WANTS to be liked. But, for some reason, many people are slow to fall under her influence. She's an acquired taste, for sure. But once it's acquired, it's easy to savor. Of course, Henin wasn't truly "liked" until she was almost gone. Or, rather, after she left, came back and was almost gone again, to be more accurate.
That Azarenka came out of that ten-minute break (which Stephens woefully utilized, sitting in a chair rather than moving around or serving a bit to keep herself warmed up) and put away the match in one game shows that her tactic, sketchy or not, WORKED. And if she defends her AO title tomorrow night, there won't be any asterisk next to her name in the record books. In a just-ending era during which so many women's #1's either didn't seem capable of winning slams, or developing the mindset and drive to allow themselves to do it, Vika is the antithesis of the likes of a certain Dane and others. By hook or by crook, Vika is willing to do what it takes to win. Just like Henin was.
And I'll take that EVERY time.
Actually, it's too bad for Azarenka to truly have the last laugh at this slam it will have to come at the expense of the charming and likable Li. If the thirtysomething '11 AO runner-up wins this time, though, that'll be fine, too, as far as I'm concerned. Either way, this year's women's champ in Melbourne will lift the Daphne Akhurt Trophy tomorrow night. And when she does, I know I'll be seeing just a bit of Justine's shadow there on Laver Arena court when she does.
And with a moment like that now fated to happen, there's no way The Radwanska can have the last laugh in Melbourne... no matter what happened to Serena and Maria.
=DAY 12 NOTES=
...looking for a soft place to land for at least one evening during this Australian Open, and with no women's singles matches scheduled for Day 12, I'm going to wait until tomorrow to post a "Day 12.5" update to recap Friday's action in Melbourne, including the Women's Doubles final, the Mixed semis, junior singles semis and doubles finals, as well as the Federer/Murray clash tonight on Laver (if necessary).
All for now. More later.