Victoria Azarenka makes a powerful point to hostile crowd

Belarusian retains title after coming from behind to beat Li Na

Melbourne Park

Even if it was just for the benefit of photographers, Victoria Azarenka was still popping champagne corks here yesterday morning following a long night of celebration. Any Grand Slam title deserves a night out on the town, but for the 23-year-old Belarusian this was special. Beating Li Na 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 in Saturday's final not only gave Azarenka her second major title and preserved her position at the top of the world rankings, it also demonstrated that she has the mental strength to win in the most testing of conditions.

Rarely can a Grand Slam final which did not feature a home player have been played in front of such a one-sided crowd. While the spectators' bias had something to do with Li's popularity here, the bigger factor was animosity towards Azarenka following her controversial semi-final victory over Sloane Stephens. Azarenka took a medical time-out just before Stephens served, unsuccessfully, to stay in the match. Having initially talked about having a "panic attack", Azarenka later insisted she had left the court because a rib injury was giving her trouble breathing.

From the moment the two finalists went on court it was clear where the crowd's affections lay. As the match progressed, Li's winners were greeted with resounding cheers, while Azarenka's drew only muted applause. When the world No 1 queried an umpire's decision, jeers rang around Rod Laver Arena.

The irony was that Li was the player who twice had to send for medical help. The 30-year-old Chinese injured her ankle in one fall and hit her head, momentarily blacking out, in another. Azarenka admitted yesterday that if Li had been forced to retire it would have been the worst possible victory for her, but the world No 6 did not appear to be too badly affected.

Azarenka had lost the first set but quickly took charge of the second and always looked the more likely winner from that moment onwards. There were a remarkable 16 breaks of serve in the match, a reflection of the quality of both players' returns as much as their failings on serve.

Had Azarenka lost, Serena Williams would have replaced her at the top of the world rankings. That could yet happen in the coming weeks as Azarenka continues to defend the mountain of ranking points she piled up in the early part of 2012, but this was confirmation that she does not intend to slip down the world order in the way that some recent No 1s – Dinara Safina, Jelena Jankovic and Caroline Wozniacki – have done.

Having won her second Grand Slam tournament, Azarenka becomes only the fifth currently active player to have won more than one major title, joining Serena Williams (17), Venus Williams (seven), Maria Sharapova (four) and Svetlana Kuznetsova (two).

Li, who has just the 2011 French Open title to her name, created her own little piece of history. In only two of the last 26 Australian Open women's finals has the winner of the first set gone on to lose the match. On both occasions the loser was Li.

There has been a view in some quarters that the women's game has been in poor shape in recent years, with nobody capable of challenging Serena Williams' status as the world's best player; an alternative view is that there are currently more women than men with the potential to win major honours. Last week's top 15 in the women's world rankings contains 12 players who have made Grand Slam finals; there are only seven men in the ATP's top 15 who have done so.

This tournament has also provided confirmation that there are exciting new talents who might soon make their breakthroughs. Stephens and Laura Robson, in particular, have demonstrated their potential, while the likes of Donna Vekic and Heather Watson have also been making progress.

 

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