Veni, Vidi, Vika
Once again, in the city of Melbourne, and in the state of Victoria, Vika Azarenka is the reigning queen of the Australian Open.
Well, after her 4-6/6-4/6-3 win over Li Na in the AO women's final to defend her title from a year ago, let it be known from this moment forward until the end of her career, which hopefully won't come for a very long time, Victoria Azarenka can take a punch, then get up and deliver one of her own. No matter how many people are against her. And, make no mistake, they were against her. In the forty-eight hours since her controversial medical timeout in the late stages of her semifinal win over Sloane Stephens, Azarenka has been criticized to a ridiculous degree by media and fans the world over for her gameswomanship (or not)-between-the-lines after blowing five match points while serving for a straight sets win over the American, which saw her leave the court for ten minutes before her opponent was in charge of serving to stay in the match.
In this AO final, the defending champ and world #1 from Belarus, 23, was not only facing the popular, 30-year old Chinese veteran Li, but she had to contend with a stadium filled with Aussie spectators (I refuse to call them tennis "fans") prepared to give her an icy reception at every turn, and were looking for any opportunity -- a frustrated ball slap, the questioning of a line call -- to boo her, cheer any of her mistakes (especially a double-fault) or remain mostly silent when something went her way. Watching, one half-expected Vika to be forced to pay a usage fee any time she uttered the same "Come on!" chant first popularized by Aussie Lleyton Hewitt years ago. Truthfully, as legitimately upset as many of the spectators might have been, it was their actions throughout most of tonight, along with that of the media machine that fueled the whole incident the past two days, that was truly the most "classless," "bush league" and "unbecoming of the sport" performance of this slam.
But that's enough about all that nonsense. This women's final, even without the help of the so-called "sporting" Aussies, has enough drama to stand on its own without any needless controversies thrown into the mix. While the actual drama of the on-court action wasn't as tense as some finals that might come to mind, the match was surely unique in its plot points and twists. For one, it included delays of eight, nine and six minutes for various injuries, as well as an honest-to-goodness Australia Day fireworks show outside Melbourne Park. It also had one side of the court playing like a virtual haunted house for servers looking to hold. Oh, and there were the two turned ankles, one bonked head, and enough moments of uncomfortable silence or boos directed at one of the shining new stars of the tour to last a lifetime.
And here we thought the stories of Azarenka and Li were more than enough to make for an intriguing final on their own.
Li, looking to become the oldest women's champ at the AO, was playing in her first slam final since adding Carlos Rodriguez to her team. Rodriguez served as a watchful presence at twelve slam finals in his role of longtime coach for Justine Henin, who, like Azarenka, engendered the scorn of media and fans in Melbourne for her actions on the court, when the out-of-form Belgian retired in the '06 final against Amelie Mauresmo. After an offseason of training intended to strengthen the veteran's body, mind and confidence, Li has come into 2013 looking to all to be capable of improving upon her 2011 success (one slam win, two slam finals), winning a title in Week 1 and then surging into her third career slam final with a dominating win in the semis over #2 Maria Sharapova. Much of her early-season success can be attributed to her Rodriguez-altered, formerly spotty forehand, to which a bit of topspin has been added to allow it to be more controllable, especially in tight situations. Li has always had the defense-to-offense game to contend for a slam, but her inconsistency has always held her back. In short order, Rodriguez and Li have proven to be a potentially lethal combo, and they've only just begun.
At this tournament a year ago, Azarenka, at the time the focus of "Whack-a-Vika" derision because of the noise she makes on the court, made it known that, after a history of angry and frustrating outbursts had held her back in her early career, she was finally a force to be reckoned with. Entering "the ring" and dispatching opponents with the brutality of an MMA fighter, Azarenka crushed Sharapova to claim her maiden slam title and assumed the #1 ranking for the first time. Since then, she's proven herself to be the best hard court player in the world. This AO championship match marked her third straight appearance in the final of a hard court slam, and she was just a lost 5-3 lead in the 3rd set in Flushing Meadows against Serena Williams last September from going for a three-for-three sweep on Saturday night. Carrying a thirteen-match Melbourne winning streak into the final, as well as a 21-2 (with both losses to Williams) mark in hard court slams since the start of 2012, Azarenka should have been an overwhelming favorite. But it was a credit to Li, as well as a discredit to the Vika-bashing media and public, that Azarenka entered the final still needing to prove something to her detractors after most of the talk over the past two weeks had been about the "expected" Serena vs. Sharapova final that never actually materialized and, over the last two days, anything but the Belarusian's tennis.
But what so many of those people failed to recognize, or remember, was precisely what Chris Evert noted during ESPN's coverage of the women's final. Namely, that Azarenka is a "tough cookie," and one who doesn't suffer fools (even if they're the WTA CEO... "good luck with that") lightly, nor stoop to change the things that make her HER just because some people may not be her biggest fan. Bless her. Those prickly-appearing traits sometimes rub people the wrong way, but it was precisely those same characteristics that allowed her to come into this final after forty-eight hours of very personal criticism and allegations being directed her way and NOT curl up in the corner and take a beating from her opponent just to make it all go away. Azarenka was not the relentless Vika of '12 in this final. Actually, except for a few sets during this AO, THAT Azarenka didn't come to Melbourne this year. Because of that, her title defense nearly came to an end in the 3rd Round against Jamie Hampton, before a back injury slowed down the American enough to allow Vika to escape the upset bid and live to fight another day. But with a slam title and #1 season already under her belt, Azarenka did show her still-growing maturity in this match. After her anxiety-fueled ending against Stephens, she kept her cool in the final.
After Azarenka and Li exchanged breaks early in the 1st set, Li served with game point for a 4-1 lead. Azarenka battled back and got the break with a deep forehand return to the corner, closing to within 3-2 and preventing the Laver atmosphere from devolving into that of something akin to a nasty Fed Cup/Davis Cup tie. There was only one hold of serve in the match's first six games. Li led 5-2, but Vika pounced on several Li backhand errors to get a break to move to 5-4. After fighting off three break points one game later, Azarenka was broken on #4, tossing in a double-fault on break point to end the seventh service game lost by both players in the set, won 6-4 by Li.
It was here that the stat about twenty-four of the past twenty-five women's singles slam finals being won by the player who claimed the opening set came into play. But it was the footnote to that stat that would prove to be even more important -- that the one loss by a 1st set victor had come two years ago in the AO final, when Li won the opening set only to eventually lose in three to Kim Clijsters.
In the 2nd, unlike in the cases of so many past slam finals for 1st set losers, Azarenka didn't wilt. Instead, as forehand errors started to occasionally spring up in Li's game after they'd been nowhere to be found during her semifinal win over Sharapova, Vika got a break of serve to go up 3-0. Then things started to get a little strange. After breaking Azarenka's serve one game earlier, at 3-1, 30/30, Li caught her foot on the court while moving along the baseline, going over on her foot and crashing to the ground. While Li was having her ankle taped by trainers, Azarenka made a point of staying warm by practicing her serves in the cold Melbourne night air, something that Stephens hadn't done in the daytime during Vika's ten-minute medical timeout. Naturally, it served to bring back all the memories of two days ago. But, just like before, that didn't stop Azarenka from doing what needed to be done.
Of course, then Li went back out on court and hit two winners to hold for 3-2, then raced to a 40/love lead on Azarenka's serve when the Belarusian sprayed a forehand. With triple break point to get back on serve, with a set advantage in the bank, Li had Vika's back against the wall. And that was when she fought her way out of the corner. One Azarenka winner was followed by another after one of Li's shots had caught the net cord and bounced high and short to set up a Vika forehand, then a good defensive scramble to get a ball back was rewarded with a Li error to get to deuce. Li's long forehand return was followed by another forehand winner from Azarenka to hold for 4-2. Li battled her own way out of a 15/40 hole to hold one game later, then got a break to knot things at 4-4. But her 2nd set momentum was short-lived, as she fell down 15/40, then shot a backhand long to hand the break back at 5-4. Azarenka served out the set at 6-4.
As Li's forehand continued to turn occasionally wayward, Azarenka used her own big forehand to open the 3rd set with a break, but then she double-faulted on a break point to hand the advantage back to the veteran. After Li hit an ace to hold for 2-1, the players were forced to sit for nine minutes as they waited out the scheduled Australia Day fireworks show in Melbourne. Then things got weird again.
One point into play after the players started up play, Li once more caught her left foot behind the baseline and went tumbling down, this time smacking the back of her head on the court as she fell. As trainers checked her for any symptoms of a concussion -- moving a finger up and back in front of her face, eliciting a grin and laugh from the good-natured Li -- yet another medical timeout was called, dredging up memories of the Stephens match yet again (once more, Vika practiced serving, as just one point had been played in the approximate twenty-minute time span that covered the fireworks and Li's second spill), as well as Azarenka's own concussion-fueled and scary crumpling to the court a few years ago at the U.S. Open.
Ultimately, Azarenka held for 2-2, then went up a break for 3-2. With the match now on the line, a bit of the old inconsistency of Li's groundstokes creeped into her game again, while Vika's game steadied. At 4-3, Li upped her aggression and took a 30/love lead on Azarenka's serve but, again, the Belarusian pulled things together for an important hold for 5-3. A game later, a Li backhand error game Azarenka a match point. Azarenka sent a second serve return back, which Li sailed long, and it was over.
Suddenly, Vika was champion again... and she knew it. In a reaction -- part relief, part stunned that she found a way to weather what was a near-perfect storm of distraction -- that was quite different from any I've ever seen at the conclusion of a slam final, Azarenka simply tossed her racket away behind her like it was a useless twig she'd picked up along the side of the road, then walked a few steps in something resembling a haze before striding confidently to the net to shake Li's hand. After being emotionally strong for two days in the face of intense criticism, she was strong in victory, as well. Then she sat down in her chair and started to sob into her towel.
They were good tears, but there was surely more than just happiness mixed into the emotions she was feeling at the end of a very long, very hard, very stressful and, ultimately, very successful slam for the STILL world #1. Azarenka's win prevents 31-year old Serena Williams, at least for now, from becoming the oldest-ever WTA #1-ranked player. While public sentiment will still (and, to be fair, rightly so) continue to say that Williams is the best player in the world, Azarenka's (now) two slam titles means she can no longer be ignored as she sometimes was at this AO. Well, until she went from almost "invisible" to "condemned" in a span of ten minutes, that is.
But, so be it. None of this is supposed to be easy. And nothing ever really is for Vika, anyway. As she reached up to the players box from the court to celebrate with her team, including coach Sam Sumyk and the ever-present Redfoo (who told her that her performance was "f------ amazing," within earshot of an ESPN microphone, prompting an apology from Pam Shriver -- giving ESPN one final, brilliant "noogie," for good measure), Vika was told that she was "a champion at heart." Amen.
Afterward came a subdued trophy presentation, one that included a spare comment from Azarenka about having things to say that she'd refrain from uttering on this occasion. While part of me wishes she HAD said all the things that were on her mind, it probably WAS the diplomatic, and best, thing to do. In the end, as she lifted the Daphne Akhurst trophy yet again on the court of Rod Laver Arena, it was clear that Azarenka had conquered it all. Li, the pressure of expectation and the moment, the desire by so many to see her lose and, most importantly, that still-existing-but-locked-away part of herself (which nearly escaped her past and wreaked havoc on her present against Stephens) that is susceptible to a flaming implosion that could produce a "choke of the year" when you'd least expect it.
Looking ahead at the long career that is hopefully still ahead for Vika, for those of us who've "bought in" to the virtue of her funky, in-your-face charms, there's always the hope that others will eventually "get it," too. Maybe one day she'll conquer the heart of the WTA, not just its Serena-less courts. Who knows, maybe even some of those same spectators in Melbourne tonight will fully embrace Azarenka, as well. Thankfully, in a right and honest WTA, time should be on her side.
But if that collective hug never comes? Well, then screw it. That'll just leave more Vika for the rest of us. Win-win.
=DAY 13 NOTES=
...well, after all that, I suppose we should give a round of applause to The Radwanska for using its influence to put on one final show on the women's side. Boos, injuries, fireworks and a victory for Vika, Redfoo and "The Party Rock Crew." It was a fittingly slighty-crazy ending to a very dramatic Australian Open.
Now, the question is whether It will stick around for the Djokovic/Murray final.
...in juniors, 15-year old Croatian Ana Konjuh took the singles title in straights over Czech Katerina Siniakova, becoming the third straight player -- after An-Sophie Mestach in '11 and Taylor Townsend last year -- to sweep both the Girls singles and doubles crowns at the Australian Open. A winner of eighteen consecutive matches going back to her Eddie Herr and Orange Bowl wins late last season, Konjuh now rises to #1 in the junior rankings. Konjuh is the third different girl representing Croatia to win a junior singles slam (so that's not counting Jelena Dokic, who was born in Croatia, grew up in Serbia, then won a junior major as an Aussie), but the first to do it since Jelena Kostanic in 1998.
In the Boys, Nick Kyrgios defeated fellow Aussie Thanasi Kokkinakis, 7-6/6-3, to become the second consecutive Australian (Luke Saville '12) to take the junior title in Melbourne, and the fourth in the last seven years.
...meanwhile, fulfilling her "destiny" in a draw without countrywoman Esther Vergeer, #1-seeded Dutchwoman Aniek van Koot added the AO Wheelchair singles title to the double crown she won the other day, defeating Germany's Sabine Ellerbrock in the final by taking a 7-5 3rd set.
*WOMEN'S SINGLES FINAL*
#1 Victoria Azarenka/BLR def. #6 Li Na/CHN 4-6/6-4/6-3
*MEN'S SINGLES FINAL*
#1 Novak Djokovic/SRB vs. #3 Andy Murray/GBR
*WOMEN'S DOUBLES FINAL*
#1 Errani/Vinci (ITA/ITA) def. Barty/Dellacqua (AUS/AUS) 6-2/3-6/6-2
*MEN'S DOUBLES FINAL*
#1 Bryan/Bryan (USA/USA) def. Haase/Sijsling (NED/NED) 6-3/6-4
*MIXED DOUBLES FINAL*
Hradecka/Cermak (CZE/CZE) vs. Gajdosova/Ebden (AUS/AUS)
*GIRLS SINGLES FINAL*
#3 Ana Konjuh/CRO def. #2 Katerina Siniakova/CZE 6-3/6-4
*BOYS SINGLES FINAL*
#3 Nick Kyrgios/AUS def. Thanasi Kokkinakis/AUS 7-6/6-3
*GIRLS DOUBLES FINAL*
#1 Konjuh/Zhao (CRO/CAN) def. #6 Korashvili/Krejcikova (UKR/CZE) 5-7/6-4/10-7
*BOYS DOUBLES FINAL*
Andrijic/Mousley (AUS/AUS) def. Marterer/Mielder (GER/AUT) 6-3/7-6
*WOMEN's WC FINAL*
#1 Aniek van Koot/NED def. #2 Sabine Ellerbrock/GER 6-1/1-6/7-5
*MEN's WC FINAL*
#2 Shingo Kunieda/JPN def. #1 Stephane Houdet/FRA 6-2/6-0
*WOMEN's WC DOUBLES FINAL*
#1 Griffioen/van Koot (NED/NED) def. #2 Shuker/Buis (GBR/NED) 6-4/6-3
*MEN's WC DOUBLES FINAL*
#2 Jeremiasz/Kunieda (FRA/JPN) def. Olsson/Kellerman (SWE/AUS) 6-0/6-1
*CAREER SLAM SINGLES TITLES - ACTIVE*
15...Serena Williams, USA
7...Venus Williams, USA
4...Maria Sharapova, RUS
2...VICTORIA AZARENKA, BLR
2...Svetlana Kuznetsova, RUS
*CAREER SLAM FINALS - ACTIVE*
19...Serena Williams (15-4)
14...Venus Williams (7-7)
7...Maria Sharapova (4-3)
4...Svetlana Kuznetsova (2-2)
3...VICTORIA AZARENKA (2-1)
3...Ana Ivanovic (1-2)
3...LI NA (1-2)
**AO "JUNIOR BREAKOUT" WINNERS**
2007 Madison Brengle, USA
2008 Jessica Moore, AUS & Arantxa Rus, NED
2009 Ksenia Pervak, RUS
2010 Karolina & Kristyna Pliskova, CZE/CZE
2011 Japanese girls
2012 Taylor Townsend, USA
2013 Ana Konjuh, CRO
*CROATIAN GIRLS SLAM CHAMPIONS*
1996 U.S. Open - Mirjana Lucic
1997 Australian Open - Mirjana Lucic
1998 Australian Open - Jelena Kostanic
2013 Australian Open - Ana Konjuh
TOP QUALIFIER: #1q Lesia Tsurenko/UKR
TOP EARLY ROUND (1r-2r): #2 Maria Sharapova/RUS
TOP MIDDLE-ROUND (3r-QF): #2 Maria Sharapova/RUS
TOP LATE ROUND (SF-F): #1 Victoria Azarenka/BLR
TOP QUALIFYING MATCH: Q1: Cagla Buykakcay/TUR d. Tamarine Tanasugarn/THA 4-6/6-2/10-8
TOP EARLY RD. MATCH (1r-2r): 2nd Rd. - Laura Robson/GBR d. #8 Petra Kvitova/CZE 2-6/6-3/11-9
TOP MIDDLE-RD. MATCH (3r-QF): QF - #29 Sloane Stephens/USA d. #3 Serena Williams/USA 3-6/7-5/6-4
TOP LATE RD. MATCH (SF-F/Jr.): SF - #1 Victoria Azarenka/BLR d. #29 Sloane Stephens/USA 6-1/6-4
TOP LAVER NIGHT MATCH: 2nd Rd. - Laura Robson/GBR d. #8 Petra Kvitova/CZE 2-6/6-3/11-9
FIRST VICTORY: #2 Maria Sharapova/RUS (def. O.Puchkova/RUS)
FIRST SEED OUT: #32 Mona Barthel/GER (lost to K.Pervak/KAZ in 1st Rd.)
UPSET QUEENS: Russia
REVELATION LADIES: United States
NATION OF POOR SOULS: Australia (1-6 in 1st Rd.; 1-7 overall)
LAST QUALIFIERS STANDING: Lesia Tsurenko/UKR & Valeria Savinykh/RUS (3rd Rd.)
LAST WILD CARD STANDING: Madison Keys/USA (3rd Rd.)
LAST AUSSIE STANDING: #9 Samantha Stosur (2nd Rd.)
Ms. OPPORTUNITY: #29 Sloane Stephens/USA
IT (Fortysomething): Kimiko Date-Krumm/JPN (at 42, oldest AO MD match winner)
COMEBACK PLAYER: Svetlana Kuznetsova/RUS
CRASH & BURN: #9 Samantha Stosur/AUS (lost to J.Zheng in 2nd Round; led 5-2 in 3rd and served for match at 5-2 and 5-4)
ZOMBIE QUEEN: #10 Caroline Wozniacki/DEN (down 3-0 in the 3rd set vs. Lisicki in 1st Rd.; had lost back-to-back 1st Rd. slam matches)
LADY OF THE EVENING: Laura Robson/GBR (def. Kvitova in 2nd Rd.; third win over former slam winner at last two slams)
DOUBLES STAR: Nominees: Errani/Vinci, J.Gajdosova
JUNIOR BREAKOUT: Ana Konjuh/CRO
All for Day 13. More tomorrow.