The Australian Open Women's Singles final which will be played at 7:30 PM on Saturday, January 26th in Melbourne (3:30 AM EST in the States) features the defending champion Victoria Azarenka the #1 seed from Belarus against Li Na, the #6 seed from China. Azarenka has beaten Na five out of nine times, but never in a Grand Slam. Azarenka has played consistently well this past year except when her opponent was Serena Williams, and stands a good chance to repeat if her nerves don't get in the way.
Azarenka sighed in huge relief after injured Serena Williams (ankle and back) was defeated by Sloane Stephens in the quarterfinals. During Azarenka's 6-2, 6-4 semi-final win over Stephens in the second set, Azarenka took a 9-minute medical time-out and left the court prompting boos from the fans in the stadium.
Azarenka had a "blocked rib" according to her video press interview after the match. "I almost did the choke of the year right now, ... at 5-3, having so many chances and I couldn't close it out. I was a bit overwhelmed realizing I was one step away from the final. Nerves got into me, for sure."
Although many players have taken time-outs or withdrawn because of injury or gamesmanship, Azarenka seems to be closer to the latter because of her timing, her aforementioned statement, and withdrawal just before playing Williams in Brisbane. Some of this might be coincidence or language, although Azarenka has lived in Scottsdale, AZ for some time. Azarenka felt so misunderstood that she had to call a press conference the day before the final to make sure that it was a misunderstanding.
After 20 years of playing, 30-year-old Na who had not beaten Sharapova in her last three tries, did so 6-2, 6-2, in the semis. With a billion plus of Chinese behind her, $42 million dollars in endorsements, and after being an Australian Open finalist and French Open winner in 2011 where she beat Azarenka both times, Na has forged her way. Aside from mediocre results in the majors of 2012 (not getting past the 4th round), Na made a big move when she switched to Justine Henin's coach, Carlos Rodriquez. Since the change, her fitness, strength, and mental toughness have improved.
Each player is appearing in her third Grand Slam final after having won one. Azarenka has 14 singles titles and Na has 7. Azarenka needs to win to keep the #1 ranking she first got after winning in Melbourne, getting to the semis at Wimbledon, and getting to the finals at the U. S. Open.
Na will have to continue to place her serve well and add some power to her consistent strokes when she catches up with Azarenka's shots. Na has 22 aces this year and wins 60.3% of her first serves and breaks serve 51.6% of the time, according to the WTA. Azarenka on the other hand, wins 70% of her first serves with only 5 aces this year and wins on 47.7% of first serves returns.
It should be a good match as both are strong, solid baseliners, and it will be loud, although not as loud as last year's Azarenka-Sharapova final. If Na continues the way she has played her last tournament and this Open, she should come out on top, provided Azarenka doesn't come up with a timely time-out. Then we'll see who is really mentally tough.
Where To Wathc Online: Victoria Azarenka vs. Li Na