Victoria Azarenka (left) and Li Na are both in their third Grand Slam final. (Getty Images)
The match had everything. A hero, a villain, fireworks, an injury, and a near-concussion. In the end it was Victoria Azarenka successfully defending her Australian Open title by beating crowd-favorite Li Na 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 to capture her second Slam title. The win means Azarenka will retain her No. 1 ranking when the new WTA rankings come out on Monday.
It wasn't a great match in terms of the tennis but it certainly did not lack in drama. After Li took the first set she rolled her left ankle in the second set but soldiered on. Azarenka forced a third set which was interrupted for 10 minutes for a fireworks display in honor of Australia Day. On the first point back Li tripped over her ankle again and hit her head hard against the court, again requiring medical attention. Through it all Azarenka kept her cool, a difficult task in light of amount of anti-Vika sentiment that swelled over the last 48 hours.
I think I can safely say this: I have never and will never see another Slam final as out of this world crazy as this one.
Game-by-game analysis of this dramatic rollercoaster of a match after the jump.
6:21 a.m. ET | Trophy presentation
As Azarenka climbs up to sign some autographs, Li sits at her chair staring straight ahead with tears in her eyes. She had such a great tournament, beating two Top 5 players and coming a set from capturing her second Slam. But an ankle roll and another fall that led to an ugly headbang onto the concrete, and what can you do. She won a lot of fans over this fortnight, as if most tennis fans didn't love her already.
"Well ladies and gentlemen, I don't think we could script that any better," says the announcer. Um...I don't think you understand tennis, sir. Typically we like our players to play unencumbered by injuries and 10 minute interruptions for fireworks.
"She's battered and she's bruised and quite possibly...buggered." That would be the introduction for your runner-up, Li Na, who gets a huge ovation from the crowd.
"Two weeks ago I have to say I hate my team," Li says as the crowd laughs. They love her here. "They push me a lot. But I think it's not bad so I should shut up. So thanks to Carlos and Dennis."
"I know I'm not young, but I have to say, already looking forward to next year," she says.
Your 2013 Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka is next. Pretty standard victory speech from her. Thanks her support team, which includes "The Party Rock Crew", and the fans and sponsors. She ends with a simple "Happy Australia Day everybody." No rousing ovation but respectful applause.
6:21 a.m. ET | Game, set, match: 4-6, 6-4, 6-3.
Li with some big hitting off the ground gets to 0-30 and has a good look at a second serve return but nets the backhand. She hangs in the rally at 30-30 and pushes the entire rally and then sends a high looping moonball that Azarenka nets. Smart change there to earn a break point. But yet another unforced error brings it back to deuce.
Azarenka fends off Li and holds to 5-3. So many break point chances, so many she just let slip. She's now 7 for 18 in the match. Brutal.
Li will serve to stay in the match.
Li starts out strong and gets a game point at 40-30, but leans into a backhand crosscourt and nets it. She sends another backhand wide on the next point and Azarenka has match point. Li sends in a second serve and eventually sends a ball long. GSM, Azarenka.
Azarenka drops her racquet in celebration and after shaking hands with Li she collapses in her chair sobbing. Tremendous amount of psychological stress she had to endure there.
6:12 a.m. ET | Azarenka leads 4-3.
Love hold to Azarenka and it is dead silent in Rod Laver Arena. Pam Shriver and Chris Evert are commentating this match as though one of these players didn't just thwack their head on the concrete. Li's forehand is indeed breaking down on her and Azarenka is pounding it as she should. Credit to the No.1. She's had to deal with a lot of psychological stress today and she's handled it well.
Not that the crowd cares. If Li can hold here they might get rowdy when she tries to break in the next game. Sure enough she does. Big game coming up on Azarenka's serve.
Li appears to be receiving a concussion test after her third-set tumble. (William West/AFP/Getty Images)
6:05 a.m. ET | Azarenka leads 3-2.
LI NA GOES DOWN AGAIN on the first point after the fireworks break. She rolls that left ankle again and slams her head on the court as she falls backwards. She's smiling but that looked like a wicked head bump.
Doctors and trainer look to be working Li through some head injury tests. Azarenka is hitting balls to stay warm.
Li retakes the court with a big smile that seems to say "Can you believe this?" And the crowd roars. I have never seen a crazier Slam final than this.
Play resumes with Azarenka serving down 1-2 and she earns herself a break point but sails a forehand long. Azarenka holds.
This isn't about the tennis anymore. It's pretty dire. They've hit 76 unforced errors between them. Now it's just about seeing if Li can still hang with Azarenka to give herself a chance.
Not quite yet. Azarenka breaks Li for the eighth time this match and she's got the break lead.
5:40 a.m. ET | Li leads 2-1.
Li is just hitting too many errors now and she looks understandably flat emotional, getting broken to start the set. She's been the better player throughout the tournament and in this match despite the injury. It just goes to show how much luck is involved in winning these Slams. That's not a knock against the winners that's a complement. Serena has won 15 of these. Think about how easily any of those Slam runs could have gone awry.
Azarenka should be running away with this but Li's hanging in there and Azarenka still making some silly errors. She doublefaults on break point to give back the break. I wonder if that break has given Li some belief. If she can just start connecting with her big shot she can still win this set.
And as I type that she holds.
Here come the fireworks. We'll have a 10 minute break in play as things explode in the sky. Will that tighten up Li's ankle?
Redfoo, a close (close) friend of Victoria Azarenka, wears a shirt that reads "GET YOUR GRUNT ON" (Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)
5:28 a.m. ET | Azarenka wins the set 6-4.
Chris Evert says she's completely stumped as to who's going to win this match. I think that's how we all feel right now.
Azarenka holds at love to take the set 6-4 and that's the first set lost by Li in the tournament. With Li struggling with that ankle injury you have to give the nod to Azarenka in this third set. So long as she plays a contained set, reducing her errors and patiently working Li around the court, she should pocket this set.
One wrinkle: There are fireworks coming. I don't mean metaphorically. There really are fireworks coming and play will be paused for 10 minutes at some point in the third set.
5:24 a.m. ET | Azarenka leads 5-4.
Li is starting to move better now. She can definitely move to her right without a problem, it's the ability to plant on the left foot that's causing her to hesitate. She gets to 15-30 on Azarenka's service game and Vika tries to get cute by hitting a drop shot. It lands softly in the net to give Li two break points to level the set. Azarenka sends a backhand long and Li has broken.
She's two games from the title. All I can think right now is Kerri Strug. But the TV flashes up a shot of Redfoo. Different.
Li still struggling to hold her serve though. It should be noted that the left foot is her landing foot. She's broken and Azarenka will serve for the set.
Li appeared to roll her left ankle in the second set, leading to an injury timeout. (Greg Wood/AFP/Getty Images)
5:10 a.m. ET | Azarenka leads 4-3.
How's this for a twist: Azarenka hasn't won a point since Li's ankle injury. She's down 0-40 on her own serve but is able to save all three. Li had her third break point all lined up but she snatched at a backhand cross court and netted it.
This are tough for Li now. She's doublefaulted twice in her service game and Azarenka has wisely keyed in to hitting behind her to exploit her inability to change directions. But she's hanging in there. Li saves two break points to get to deuce.
SHOT. Azarenka comes into the net and Li sticks a backhand down the line right past her. She escapes with the hold.
5:04 a.m. ET | Azarenka leads 3-2.
INJURY SCARE: After getting a break back Li goes down and seems to have rolled her left ankle and goes to the ground. She gets up and is hopping around. Difficult to put weight on it. The trainer is out and she's walking to the chair under her own power. This doesn't look good at all.
Li is getting her left ankle taped but she's clearly in some pain. While she's getting worked on Azarenka has stood up to take some practice serves to stay warm. The irony of all this is pretty difficult to ignore.
Li serving at 30-30 and she's testing her movement. She hits a backhand winner to earn game point and another backhand winner gets her the hold.
4:48 a.m. ET | Azarenka leads 3-0.
That first set was sub-standard overall but it definitely picked up as the set went on and they played some great points in that last game. Let's hope the quality continues to improve. The pressure is going to ratchet up for Li. She's a set away from becoming the oldest woman to win the Australian Open. She'd also become Serena Williams' new BFF. If Li can close this match out Serena will be No. 1 on Monday.
Li serves first and despite having a game point she ends up getting broken.
So far the stats don't tell us anything we don't know. Li is the aggressor, hitting 14 winners to 24 unforced errors, while Azarenka has hit only 5 winners to 15 unforced errors. The most glaring stat is points won on second serve. Azarenka is getting crushed here, winning a mere 22 percent to Li's 56 percent. She's serving at a high percentage on her first serve (79 percent) but she's only winning 45 percent of those points. All in all, Azarenka's service games have been struggles.
She has to save a break point but Azarenka battles to a hold and then she breaks Li again. She's in this now. You have to worry about Li if she can't close this out in two sets. She won the first set in the final against Clijsters two years ago only to lose in three sets.
Meanwhile, Britain's Heather Watson weighs in with some fashion critique.
Li clearly has the crowd behind her, but both players had shaky starts. (Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images)
4:30 a.m. ET | Li wins the first set 6-4.
Li earns a set point by ripping another winner after Azarenka's weak second serve but another error puts them back at deuce.
SHOT! What a get from Azarenka. Li lunges at a midcourt approach shot, puts too much air under it but comes into the net anyway. Azarenka gets there and lunges to hit an incredible sharp crosscourt forehand winner. Li saves game point with that forehand again and earns set point No. 2.
This is great tennis now and the crowd knows it. They're cheering for all the winners now from either player, though they're still louder for Li.
Tremendous rally! Point of the match as both women pound the ball and move corner to corner for more than 20 shots before Li finishes it with a backhand winner.
Finally on her fourth set points, Li converts. How fitting. The set ends as it began: with a doublefault.
4:21 a.m. ET | Li leads 5-4.
Good hold for Azarenka to force Li to serve out the set.
Two errors from Li and she's down 0-30. Azarenka is doing a better job absorbing the pace and while she's not getting much on the replies she's getting them deep. Another backhand error from Li and Azarenka has three break points. Sure enough she breaks.
She'll serve to stay in the set. Good luck with that. With the way things have been going for the servers (six breaks in nine games) this could be an adventure.
Li eyes her second Grand Slam title. Would that be enough to make the Hall of Fame? (Michael Dodge/Getty Images)
4:14 a.m. ET | Li leads 5-2.
Obligatory shot of Redfoo. Fine. Let's just get that over with early.
Servers having a tough time holding. Azarenka's quickly down 0-40 as Li fires a backhand return down the line for a winner and she breaks two points later with another backhand, this time teeing it up perfectly down the line for a clean winner. Beautiful shot.
Li consolidates the break, which is quite the feat considering there have been five breaks in seven games. But as expected, she's gladly accepted the rolre of shotmaker, hitting eight winners to Azarenka's two.
4:05 a.m. ET | Li leads 3-2.
Li is beginning to loosen up a bit and her movement is much better after the changeover. She breaks Azarenka with some good hitting and the forehand that helped her dismantle Sharapova is looking good so far.
Azarenka on the other hand just looks three steps slow. There's no explosion in her footwork and Li is successfully wrong-footing her. But to her credit she's trying to fire herself up. She plays two good back-to-back points and she's starting to fist-pump and exhort herself with some come ons.
On game point Li misfires badly on a drive volley forehand. Like...10 feet out. She's keeping her calm so far but Azarenka is starting to up her intensity. She's starting to get mind and heart into this match and she breaks back to get back on serve.
The old Li would be beating herself up on that drive volley miss. She should be up 4-1.
Victoria Azarenka, wearing leggings on a chilly night, received some negative crowd reaction coming out to Rod Laver Arena. (William West/AFP/Getty Images)
3:55 a.m. ET | Li leads 2-1.
Horrible start so far, which is somewhat understandable given the cloud hanging over this match. Few matches have been decided by winners and I'm not sure any rally has lasted longer than five strokes.
Li opens with a doublefault but hits a forehand down the line winner on the next point and the crowd goes nuts. I can already tell Azarenka's typical wail is a bit muted. We can argue whether she caused this or not, but these are some rough conditions to play under as you go for a Slam title.
Very tight first game from Li, who misfires throughout to hand over the early break. This is the opening Azarenka needs. If she can just hold the lead she'll keep this crowd out of it and allow herself to relax a bit.
In Azarenka's first service game she falls into a quick 0-30 hole. Already we've heard some heckling from the crowd and fans imitating her wail between points. Just like that, Li gets the break right back and holds in a deuce game.
Through three games Azarenka has no winners and five unforced errors. Li has three winners to six unforced errors.
In more pleasant news, here's Darren Cahill in a kilt.
3:45 a.m. ET | Warm-up
Li Na is all smiles as she walks out onto Rod Laver Arena to rousing applause. Victoria Azarenka, in her standard hoodie and earphones, follows her out and there's a noticeable drop-off in the cheers. It's polite. No boos, maybe a few whistles. Could have been worse, honestly. The Melbourne papers have been absolutely brutal today, with front page headlines continuing to call out Azarenka's perceived gamesmanship in her semifinal win over Sloane Stephens.
The DJ has chosen David Guetta's "Titanium" as their walk-out music. "I'm bulletproof, nothing to lose. Fire away, fire away." Foreshadowing?
It's a cool night and Alison Lang is in the chair for this one. She reminds the players that play will be interrupted at around 9:00 p.m. local time for fireworks. Confused? It's Australia Day today. They like fireworks.
Azarenka is looking to retain her title and her No. 1 ranking. (Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images)
Azarenka wins the toss and elects to receive.
Thoughts on this tweet from the London Times' Neil Harman? On one hand everyone knows about the controversy. On the other, why encourage people? It's just awkward.
Victoria Azarenka and Li Na will meet in the Australian Open final on Saturday. The match is scheduled to begin at 3:30 a.m. ET (ESPN). Azarenka, the No. 1 seed in and defending champion, defeated Sloane Stephens amid controversy
to earn her place in the final. She needs to win this match to retain the No. 1 ranking. If Azarenka loses, she would fall to No. 2 and Serena Williams would ascend to No. 1. Li, the No. 6 seed and 2011 finalist, has yet to drop a set in the tournament despite playing four consecutive seeds, including No. 4 Agnieszka Radwanska in the quarterfinals (7-5, 6-3) and Maria Sharapova (6-2, 6-2) in the semifinals. The 30-year-old will move up one spot to No. 5 in next week's WTA rankings regardless of Saturday's outcome. Azarenka leads the head-to-head 5-4 and has won the last four meetings, including all three last year. But Li is 2-0 against Azarenka in majors, winning in the quarterfinals of the 2011 French Open and the fourth round of the 2011 Australian Open. Azarenka is 20-0 in January matches since losing to Li in Melbourne two years ago.