Melbourne: Li Na is expected to receive the lion’s share of crowd support in the Australian Open final on Saturday after Victoria Azarenka was accused of stooping to gamesmanship to reach the title match.
China’s Li has consistently stated that Melbourne Park makes her feel at home, but her Belarus rival’s relationship with patrons inside Rod Laver Arena has always been uneasy.
She has been jeered in the past for her trademark shrieks while hitting the ball, and her triumph in the semi-final against Sloane Stephens was marred by a controversial medical timeout at a crucial stage.
Azarenka lost five match points while dropping her serve at 5-3 in the second set. When she completed her 6-1, 6-4 win after extended off-court treatment from the doctor, there was only a smattering of applause.
And the 23-year-old was sternly criticised in Australian newspapers on Friday.
“Let’s hope she loses the final,” wrote The Australian. “Aza bad call,” was the headline in the Herald-Sun. “Beyond A Choke,” was on the front page of The Age. “Azarenka’s cheating ain’t no choke,” said The Daily Telegraph.
Azarenka claimed a misunderstanding during a post-match interview led to the belief she had left the court because she was panicking. She was adamant that rib troubles had caused a shortage of breath and back pain.
“Tomorrow is another day,” Azarenka said. “I’m really happy to defend my title. That’s my goal. Actually, not to defend, to win the tournament. I’ve put myself into position to give it the best shot there is. I’m really looking forward to it.”
Li declined to cast judgment. “I’m not her, so I don’t know the truth,” she said. “I mean, I also wasn’t on the court to see, so I couldn’t say anything.
“She called a doctor on the court. If the doctor say she needs to go out of the court, she should follow the doctor, right?”
Both Li and Azarenka are attempting to shed their tags of one-Slam wonders.
The in-form, super-fit Li is contesting her first major final since her history-making victory at the French Open in 2011, when she became the first Asian player to win a Grand Slam singles title.
Azarenka is the defending champion at Melbourne Park. Her victory over Maria Sharapova in last year’s final set her on the path to becoming the world No 1. She must defeat Li to retain top spot ahead of America’s Serena Williams.
Li has lost her last four matches against Azarenka. “At least this year we didn’t meet,” she said. “So this is a new start. Last year she was doing well all year. It is not easy. It is a tough match. I just have to enjoy the moment.”
Li, who was beaten by Belgium’s Kim Clijsters in the 2011 final in Melbourne, claimed she would be more relaxed on Saturday.
“Last time was more exciting, I was more nervous,” she said. “It was my first time to be in a final. This time, I’m more calmed down. More cool, a little bit.”