Victoria Azarenka overcomes Li Na, ire to win second straight Australian Open title

Marianna Massey

She doesn't make life easy on herself that often, but Victoria Azarenka is now a two-time Australian Open champion following a flawed, fascinating three-set win over Li Na.

When people complain about grunting in women's tennis, they point to hers first. It's not so much a grunt as the sound a Super Mario Bros villain makes when hit by a projectile, but it's … noticeable.

When people complain about tennis' strange injury timeout rules, they point to her again. She got 10 minutes for basically suffering an anxiety attack late in the second set against Sloane Stephens in the semifinals and got completely obliterated for it by the press, and fans, for two straight days. (Atrocity? Really? Have you ever had an anxiety attack?)

She withdraws frequently from tournaments, occasionally earning ire in the process.

Her supporters in the booth are, shall we say, not the normal tennis crowd.

We strive for uniqueness in sports, and when we get it, we often turn on it. If Victoria Azarenka didn't know this before the 2013 Australian Open (and she probably did), she certainly knows it now. But on Saturday in Melbourne, she went out and took down crowd favorite Li Na in three sets anyway. She played nearly perfect tennis in the third set to finish the job. She is now the two-time defending Australian Open champion. Does she use some gamesmanship here and there? Absolutely. Does she use the rules to her full advantage. I'm sure. Does she make life harder for herself than she needs to sometimes? Obviously. She doesn't play the game, but she plays pretty damn good tennis. And now she's got two slam titles to show for it.

Here's what I said about Azarenka a year ago when she pummeled Maria Sharapova for her first Aussie title:

She wears headphones onto the court, she bounces around to her own beat, and she literally struts around the court when she's doing well. The 22-year old from Minsk provides a unique viewing experience … and she's also really good at tennis. Like Petra Kvitova last year at Wimbledon, she responded well (eventually) in her first slam final, showing some early nerves -- two double-faults and a couple of easy errors in the first game -- before wiping the floor with Maria Sharapova. […]

Everybody from Ana Ivanovic to Sam Stosur has shown enough potential to take over the women's game, and they have all proceeded to take a few steps backwards following their success. Now it's Azarenka's turn. The temperamental 18-year old has turned into a mature, fascinating 22-year old; now it's on her to prove that she's not like all the rest.

A year later, guess who's still No. 1 in the world. Azarenka did falter briefly in 2012; she started the year 23-0 but struggled through pieces of the clay-court season, lost in the fourth round of the French Open to Dominka Cibulkova, and lost her No. 1 ranking to Sharapova. But when Serena Williams regained her form mid-summer, Azarenka quietly found hers again as well. Williams dominated the tour, losing just once between the French Open and this year's Aussie, but Azarenka played in enough tournaments, and played well enough, to both regain and retain the No. 1 ranking. She came within just a couple of points of beating Williams for the U.S. Open title; she needed to outlast Williams at the Aussie Open to keep her No. 1 ranking, and she did so.

Was there some luck along the way to Azarenka's second title? Absolutely. Williams, her likely semifinal opponent when the draw was released, has gone 11-1 versus Azarenka all-time and dropped just one set to her in five 2012 matches; but Williams was nagged by a series of injuries throughout the tournament, from a turned ankle in the first round to a tweaked back in the quarterfinals, and she was taken down by Sloane Stephens before she reached the semis. And in the finals, Li Na hit the ground multiple times, hit her head at one point, and by the end of the match was wearing more tape than you can find in a Home Depot. Azarenka, meanwhile, spent much of the final two rounds looking for her forehand, which came and went.

But with the title on the line, and with absurdity taking over (at one point, there was a 10-minute break because of a pre-scheduled fireworks show), Azarenka played some incredible tennis. In the third set, she landed 79 percent of her first serves, committed just four unforced errors (Na had 21) and won five of six break points (all three of hers and two of Na's three). Perhaps she had a little bit of help in getting to closing time, but once there, she closed.

As important as anything else, though, is that Azarenka is still here. We've talked about it often, but women's tennis has been in flux for quite a while. When Justine Henin retired following the 2008 Australian Open, the game went into an almost constant state of flux. Ana Ivanovic won the 2008 French Open, reached No. 1, then lost both her confidence and her game. Dinara Safina reached No. 1, got slaughtered in three slam finals, and quietly disappeared from the game with back troubles. Jelena Jankovic reached No. 1, fell to Serena Williams in her lone slam final (2008 U.S. Open), and eventually fell into the teens and 20s. It continued well beyond 2008; one player after another would win a slam, then fall early in the next one. Williams couldn't stay healthy, and nobody else could keep hold of the women's tennis mantel.

One after another, a new woman has emerged to potentially dominate, then has fallen. Meanwhile, Serena Williams either misses tournaments with injury or simply doesn't play in enough tournaments to reach No. 1 in the world; we are in a constant state where the best player in the world and the No. 1 player in the rankings are mutually exclusive. And with Williams' record versus Azarenka, we are likely still in that state. But in Azarenka, women's tennis has a player that isn't going anywhere, one that brings personality, youth and a ferocious service return to the table, one that still has some upside left to unearth. The top of the women's game is not as insanely good as it is on the men's side, but with Azarenka's emergence, Williams' rededication (and occasional good health) and Sharapova's resurgence, it's getting somewhere. The game doesn't have to rely on occasional top-tier play from the likes of Na, Petra Kvitova or Sam Stosur or the steady play (with a lower upside) of women like Agnieszka Radwanska and Angelique Kerber. And it doesn't have to put pressure on teenagers like Sloane Stephens and Laura Robson to rise and dominate before they're ready. The sport has a clear top tier and better depth than it has had since the middle of the last decade. That is a very good thing. And Azarenka is a large piece of that good thing.

Tears are often expected when a player closes out a slam. Winning seven matches in two weeks against world-class competition is terribly difficult, especially in occasionally oppressive Australia sun. But what we saw from Victoria Azarenka were not tears so much as visible catharsis. Some combination of a second-set back injury and extreme anxiety led to her taking an injury timeout in the semifinals against Sloane Stephens; was it a questionable use of the timeout rules? Possibly. But she got slammed so hard for it that you'd have thought she had spit in Stephens' face. While preparing to potentially win a second slam title, she had to stop to constantly answer questions about, and face downright wrath regarding, the timeout. It was unfair, and it was something that most other players wouldn't have had to deal with. But she had won the title anyway. She cried into her towel on the sideline, and then she cried some more. When she ran over to reach up to the people in the booth, they didn't tell her things like "Congratulations," or "You're awesome." They said things like, "It's okay" and "You deserve it." The tournament, and her treatment, had taken their toll. It was difficult to watch. Hell, so was the match.

Uniqueness, in all of its good and bad incarnations, have not made Victoria Azarenka a favorite of some fans or, especially, commentators. But with two slam titles, some extreme mental toughness and a game that is still a work in progress, she can silence any naysayers by simply continuing to win, and win, and win. It's funny how that tends to change perceptions. And for Azarenka, it's so far, so good.

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