Villain vs. comedian in Aussie final
MELBOURNE, Australia -- Will the women's final be a drama or a comedy? That could depend on who controls the match. Victoria Azarenka and Li Na have set very different themes for themselves in this tournament, with Azarenka lurching her way through and Li sailing smoothly and cracking jokes.
But whatever the genre of the contest, the casting already has been set. Azarenka will be the villain and Li the star of the show.
Azarenka has frequently struggled to win over the crowds because of her high-pitched grunting and her sometimes combative attitude during matches, but it was her controversial timeout in Thursday's semifinal against Sloane Stephens that clinched her the role. The top seed went off court for medical treatment at 5-4 in the second set after blowing five match points in the previous game. The break lasted 10 minutes, after which Stephens was broken when serving to stay in the match.
That alone would have created head shaking, but Azarenka compounded the controversy by suggesting in TV interviews that she had taken the timeout because of nerves and breathing difficulties caused by the events of the match. But speaking to reporters afterward, she said she had misunderstood the interview questions and took treatment for a "locked" rib that was giving her back problems. Azarenka said she also experienced a knee problem after visibly catching her leg on the court early in the second set.
The atmosphere was tense and confrontational, with Azarenka helping set the tone by showing up in a T-shirt emblazoned with "Kiss my Fast." Although the Belarusian has a history of dubious timeouts and retirements, she also has displayed a reluctance to talk publicly about her injuries, making it hard to tell exactly what her physical condition is going into the final.
Tournament officials confirmed that Azarenka had received two timeouts for her knee and rib, although Azarenka herself was insistent that she had taken only one, for her rib.
There were no signs of strapping or visible discomfort in her practice session the day after, with Azarenka dressed in a warm-up jacket and tight leggings covering her legs as she whaled -- and wailed -- away at her groundstrokes.
Being the bad guy -- or gal -- isn't expected to worry Azarenka, however. Her toughness is ingrained: She left home at a young age to pursue her tennis career, initially being housed by the family of fellow Belarusian NHL player Nikolai Khabibulin after becoming friends with his tennis-playing daughter at junior events.
She also has shown resilience since winning the Australian Open a year ago to capture her first major and reach No. 1, showing few signs of the temper and mental breakdowns she was once known for. But then came her near choke against Stephens on Thursday, just when the final was within touching distance.
There will be even more pressure now, with the defense of her title and the No. 1 ranking on the line. If Li plays as she did in the semifinals against Maria Sharapova, it spells another emotional day for Azarenka.
For Li, meanwhile, the focus is on not being emotional. That's the message from Carlos Rodriguez, who began working with her this past summer and was the longtime coach of Justine Henin.
"I try to cool down on the court," Li said. "Like Hollywood, you know -- you don't have to show opponent what are you thinking."
Rodriguez's script is for Li to follow her game plan and be prepared for long rallies, but, most of all, not to lose the plot. He contrasted the difference between Li's dismantling of Sharapova in the semifinals with their match in Beijing last year. "The first four to five games start like today, 3-1, serving for 4-1 and then she lose completely the mind," he said after Thursday's match. "She make only one game afterwards.
"Mistakes you're going to make all the time. OK, no problem. But continue.
"The most important thing is to make them understand that as long you play you have your game plan, but besides that, stop looking at your opponent."
Rodriguez says that state of mind is central to implementing the technical improvements he has tried to make on Li's serve and forehand.
"I can learn her a lot of things, but if you're tight, you miss and you say the forehand is not good, the serve is not good. No, you have to go one step back," Rodriguez said. "I say [to] her, 'OK, do a little more spin.'
"You have to do that [swing over the ball] a little bit faster. But if you're tight, you cannot do that a little bit faster."
Li certainly has been relaxed in public so far at this event, joking about how Rodriguez's offseason training nearly sent her into retirement, her physio's annoyance at not getting any of the attention, her usual banter about her husband who is no longer her coach -- "just hitting partner, fix the drinks," she said.
Even the day before the final, she hadn't lost her sense of humor. Asked about possibly using an English name, she said, "I think my name is so short I even didn't need English name."
After quitting tennis a few years ago, Li has rediscovered her love of the game and now is used to managing the fame and attention that followed her Grand Slam victory at the French Open two years ago, the first singles major won by a Chinese player.
She thinks she'll be able to maintain her equilibrium going into the match better than in her first Grand Slam final at this event in 2011, both because of her experience winning the French Open later that year and because she has Rodriguez in her corner.
"I mean, 2011, first time to the Grand Slam final, I was a little bit shocked because I didn't know what I should do. Also, no one tell me what I should do on the court," she said. "But this time I got more experience, so I think should be better.
"Carlos, before, he was coaching for Justine, so he has a lot of experience for the final."
While Li prepares mentally, Azarenka must regroup emotionally from the soap opera during and after her semifinal.
And physically? "She's going to be fine," said Azarenka's coach, Sam Sumyk.
Both players are among the hardest hitters on the women's tour from the baseline, and both continue to prefer their backhand wings despite making improvements to their forehand. Each will try to get the other on the move. Serving well also will be important for Li as Azarenka is one of the game's best returners.
As with Li's match against Sharapova, it could be a close match or a blowout for either player, depending on how each shows up for the final. Will there be more drama or comic relief? Tune in to find out.