VICTORIA Azarenka admits the successful defence of her Australian Open crown was “way more emotional” than her grand slam breakthrough 12 months ago.
The Belarusian claimed her first major title in Melbourne in 2012 but she believes the roller-coaster of emotions she has been on in the past fortnight – and, in particular, the past few days – means her latest achievement will always be special.
Azarenka beat Li Na in the final on Saturday, two days after edging out Sloane Stephens in a controversial semi after which she was heavily criticised.
The 23-year-old was accused of taking a medical time-out against Stephens to simply calm her nerves after squandering five match points deep in the second set. She later explained she had required treatment for a rib injury which left her struggling to breathe.
Despite her lengthy protestations of innocence, there was still a smattering of boos when she made her way on to Rod Laver Arena for the final, with the majority of fans clearly rooting for her Chinese opponent.
Former French Open champion Li had been roared on to court like a local hopeful and every point she won was greeted with huge applause, even on the many occasions that it derived from an Azarenka mistake.
Mixed with the traditional Chinese sporting war cry of “jia you”, one voice from the crowd shouted “C’mon Sloane”, while another responded to the Belarusian’s trademark grunts by shouting: “Quiet please, Azarenka”.
Although she lost the first set, Azarenka managed to come through to win 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, after which she broke down in tears.
Asked to compare her win with last January, she said: “It’s a completely different mix of feelings. This one is way more emotional. It’s going to be extra special for sure.
“I never compare my wins or losses in any tournaments, it’s just a matter of the feeling you get, things you’ve been through, because you’re the only one who knows what you’ve been going through these two weeks. So it’s definitely an emotional one and it’s going to be special.”
On the Stephens incident, she added: “What happened with Sloane was a big deal. It came out as a big deal. But I take it as a great learning experience and just try to live the moment and take the best things out of what happened and move forward.
“Two weeks is [a long time] to keep your cool because in one way it seems so short and in another so long.”
Azarenka was on her best behaviour in the final, and she hopes she may have won some fans over. “I don’t know, I hope so,” she said. “That’s out of my hands really. I just try to be the best tennis player there is.
“I cannot go back in time and I can’t go forward in time. I can just take control of what I can. I’ve done that and I’m really proud of that.”
Li double-faulted on her very first serve and was broken immediately but that only set the pattern on both sides of the net for the first set. The Chinese recovered to dominate the opening stanza, ramping up the forehand that was once her weakness and hitting some blistering winners with her backhand.
Azarenka had raced out to a 3-1 lead in the second set when Li took her first tumble, turning on her left ankle and crashing to the ground. The Chinese had the joint strapped and came out firing to get back to 4-4 before Azarenka upped her game again and levelled the match up when Li went wide with a forehand.
It was Li’s turn to go ahead in the third set and she was 2-1 up when play was called to a halt for ten minutes for a firework display in honour of Australia Day.
Li took her second fall on the first point after play resumed and lay prone on the floor receiving attention.
Azarenka quickly grabbed what turned out to be the decisive break and dominated the rest of the match, ensuring she would retain her title when another Li forehand sailed long.