Live Blog: Australian Open Women’s Final, Victoria Azarenka vs. Li Na

This was Sydney last year. What will Melbourne be this year?


Follow for updates from the women’s final as the match unfolds.  Victoria Azarenka seeks to defend her title and her #1 ranking, but Li Na looks for a third straight victory over a top-four opponent.

Azarenka 1*-0:  Having claimed that she would silence her nerves for her second final here, Li suggests otherwise with a double fault to open the final.  Not nervous herself, Azarenka pounds a series of deep returns that allow her to move inside the baseline early in the rallies.  A pair of routine errors from 30-30 hand the first of what should be many breaks to the defending champion.

Li 2-1*:  When she starts her first service game, Azarenka now looks edgy and quickly returns the break with some tepid errors.  Steadying herself in the next game, Li opens it by winning a long rally with a clean forehand winner, her first of the match.  As expected, she dictates most of the rallies for better or for worse and ends most of them with winners or unforced errors.  With some more solid serving, she earns a valuable hold to reverse the early deficit.

Li 3-2*:  Smartly freezing and wrong-footing Azarenka by redirecting her groundstrokes, Li breaks easily under the weight of her superior power as the top seed looks a trifle sluggish.  Down 30-15 on her next return game, Vika drills a backhand down the line that appears to alleviate some of her simmering frustration.  Two game points spurned, one on a gruesome miss, Li dumps a backhand in the net to keep the set on serve (or on break, if you prefer).

Li 5-2*:  With a massive backhand that cleans the sideline splendidly, Li earns the third straight break after surrendering just one point to Azarenka.  Her return continues to maul the Belarussian’s serve, both first and second.  Azarenka has won just four points in three service games as she still looks for her first hold.  By contrast, Li holds serve at love with a resounding statement that moves her within a game of the first set.

Li 5-4*:  The top seed urgently needed to hold, and she does by finding more first serves before following them with deep penetrating groundstrokes.  Serving for the first set, Li donates a loose sequence of points that leave her pinned at triple break point.  Her groundstrokes narrowly missing their targets, she saves just a single break point before another sloppy error moves the set back on serve, although Azarenka still must hold to draw level.

Li 6-4:  From 30-30, a crushing cross-court return winner off the forehand positions Li at set point, but Azarenka saves it when her opponent’s return sails long.  The two women then trade sizzling forehand winners as the quality of the match improves, Vika’s coming off a sharply angled pass and the Chinese star’s after a point that she set up with groundstrokes off both sidelines.  A second set point vanishes with a fine drop volley from Azarenka, not usually a specialty of hers.  But a third set point arrives when Li catches the Belarussian leaning the wrong direction and punishes her with an inside-out backhand winner, only to squander it with a return error.  The fourth set point falls into her ledger without the need to strike a ball, though, when Azarenka double-faults well long.

Li 6-4 0-3*:  Break #8 arrives immediately when Li’s backhand drifts into the alley in a surprising sign of weakness from a normally steady shot.  Clearly not free of her nerves yet, she contributes more errors in another Azarenka game that reaches deuce and ultimately break point.  Able to save the break point with a service winner, Vika steadies herself to play some of her most impressive tennis so far as she paints both sidelines with both groundstrokes in a Djokovic-like sequence that finally silences the tenacious Li.  The unforced errors flow ever more freely from the Chinese star’s racket, recalling her wayward start to the second set in the 2011 final after she had won the first.  Vika claims an extra break to take control of this set, for now.

Li 6-4 2-3*:  In every service game but one, Azarenka has dropped her serve or faced break point.  That trend continues when a crisp inside-out forehand from Li follows a wayward forehand from Vika to regain part of the deficit.  Ranging along the baseline midway through her next service game, she tumbles onto the court as she appears to sprain her ankle.  Not as gruesomely twisted as some before her, it requires a medical timeout that halts the momentum of the match even further.  When she returns, however, Li unleashes aggressive backhands to hold off the slightly out-of-tune Azarenka.

Li 6-4 3-4*:  Battling to regain the other break, Li moves across the baseline more effortfully but almost as effectively.  She draws an error from Azarenka via a well-timed lob and soon finds herself down triple break point when the defending champion misses a straightforward forehand.  A netted ball on the third appears to drain some of the spirit from her as a merciless Vika digs out of trouble to hold.  Faced with a virtual must-hold, she double-faults consecutively at 15-15 as her movement starts to falter.  Azarenka nets a routine backhand on the second to keep the set tight, and some clean serving from Li allows her to escape the game.

Li 6-4 4-5*:  Bombing a pinpoint backhand return on the first point of the eighth game, Li moves Azarenka off the court by creating a sharp forehand angle.  By netting a drop shot, the defending champion sets up double break point.  When Azarenka sprays a forehand on the second, the set returns to even terms after the top set had led by a double break.  Struggling to capitalize on the momentum shift, Li nets some routine groundstrokes and sends a backhand long on break point.

Sets even 6-4 4-6:  Appearing to suffer increasing pain in her ankle, the Chinese veteran concedes the next game quickly with a series of routine errors.  Azarenka holds without facing a break point for just the second time and holds for just the third time overall in two sets.  Li now must regroup herself mentally and physically for a final set as her ankle trouble continues to loom.

Li 6-4 4-6 2-1*:  At 15-30, Li botches a mid-court forehand in horrific fashion to set up double break point.  After she holds a game point following a netted groundstroke from Li, Azarenka grows too passive and later double-faults for the 14th break of the match.  Taking advantage of a lull in her opponent’s consistency, the Chinese star edges ahead just before the Australia Day fireworks start in Melbourne.

Azarenka 4-6 6-4 3*-2:  An excruciating match for Li’s body grows ever more painful as she slips on the baseline during the first point after the fireworks and not only twists her ankle again but bangs her head into the asphalt.  After a timeout to assess a potential concussion, she bounces back with a sparkling inside-out backhand return at 30-30 to earn a break point.  Azarenka then shows off her own two-hander to save the break point with a signature cross-court angle.  An early forehand error in the next game and a double fault on the third point dig a hole for Li.  With double break point ahead, however, Azarenka floats a shot over the baseline.  Or rather not, for Hawkeye reverses the call and forces a replay that the world #1 wins with another magnificent cross-court backhand.

Azarenka 4-6 6-4 4*-3:  Holding comfortably for a rare time, Azarenka moves within two games of defending her title.  For her part, Li regroups sturdily from losing the first point of a crucial service games to take command behind her first serve.  She holds with a booming cross-court forehand to keep the suspense very much in this match.

FINAL:  Azarenka wins 4-6 6-4 6-3:  An inside-in forehand winner followed by penetrating backhands puts Azarenka in an early 0-30 hole as she grows too passive.  Creating an interesting change of pace at 30-30, Li claims a break point with a moonball that draws a forehand error.  Azarenka saves it with a first serve out wide and moves within five points of the title with an inside-out forehand winner.  Another wide serve leaves Li serving to stay in the match.  A fine backhand winner down the line keeps her alive at 15-15, but a forehand winner from Azarenka moves her within two points of the title.  The game soon reaches deuce following a deep forehand and a netted backhand from Li, deciding her own fate to the end.  A wild backhand offers Azarenka her first championship point, which she earns with a backhand sailed over the baseline from Li.

Azarenka showed the resolve of a champion in defending her first major title, but Li also deserves credit for battling so fiercely through injury after injury to extend the world #1 deep into a final set.  Credit to both of them.