MELBOURNE, Jan 25 (Reuters) - Accused of gamesmanship and dogged by injury, Victoria Azarenka’s bid for successive Australian Open titles on Saturday will pit her against an opponent in the form of her life and a centre-court crowd wary of any hint of bad sportsmanship.
The Belarusian will take on sixth seed Li Na, who has not dropped a set all tournament and boosted her sky-high confidence further by demolishing last year’s finalist Maria Sharapova 6-2 6-2 in the semi-finals.
Azarenka’s performance against American Sloane Stephens was less assured, and marred by controversy when the top seed took a near-10 minute medical timeout after blowing five match-points.
Azarenka returned to the court with jeers from the crowd, and after closing it out on the sixth match-point, added fuel to the fire by telling the on-court interviewer she nearly had “the choke of the year.”
Slammed on social media and grilled by reporters, Azarenka denied she had taken the timeout to calm her nerves, saying it was to receive treatment for a rib injury that was restricting her breathing.
Medical staff confirmed the treatment, according to tournament director Craig Tiley, and the 23-year-old tried to clear the air in an interview with the host broadcaster Channel Seven on Friday.
“It wasn’t really pleasant but there are some things that you have to deal with and some things you have to learn from,” said Azarenka of the controversy.
“The important thing is just to move forward and have a great match tomorrow.”
If Azarenka requires any additional motivation on Saturday, she knows she will lose her world number one ranking to Serena Williams if she fails to take the title.
The public relations exercise is unlikely to win much of the Rod Laver Arena crowd back to her corner, especially against an opponent like Li, who lost in the 2011 final to Kim Clijsters and remains a sentimental favourite at Melbourne Park.
Li, who will turn 31 next month and is bidding to become the tournament’s oldest women’s champion, is in the shape of her life after a punishing off-season boot-camp under new coach Carlos Rodriguez, former mentor to seven-times grand slam champion Justine Henin.
Li said she was better prepared to take the title after being overwhelmed in her first attempt against Clijsters, which was also her maiden grand slam final.
“(The) first time to the grand slam final, I was a little bit shocked because I didn’t know what I should do,” said Li who captured her sole grand slam title at the French Open a few months after the disappointment Down Under.
“Also no one told me what I should do on the court. But this time I’ve got more experience, so I think I should be better.”
Rodriguez has not only encouraged the hard-hitting Li to use more topspin as a defensive weapon and to mix up her play, but also brought a more tactical approach to her game.
The approach was obvious against Sharapova, as Li dominated the baseline and turned her soft serve into a slicing weapon that rarely allowed the Russian a free hit.
Most of Rodriguez’s work has been between the ears, however, teaching the temperamental Li to silence the voices of doubt in her head and trust in her game.
“He gives me ‘homework’. He’ll give me a piece of paper with some things written on it,” said Li, Asia’s first grand slam singles champion.
“It’s just about believing in myself.”
Azarenka holds a 5-4 record over Li and has won their last four matches, the most recent a tight battle in October at the WTA Championships in Istanbul that ensured she would finish the year as world number one.
Li, however, is 2-0 up in grand slam encounters, having beaten Azarenka at Melbourne Park in 2011 and again during her run to the title at Roland Garros. (Editing by Peter Rutherford)