MELBOURNE, Australia – Victoria Azarenka will have 48 hours to calm her nerves, rest her body and move past a center-court controversy before she returns to defend her Australian Open title.
Her opponent is an emotionally and physically fresher Li Na, the 2011 French Open champion.
Both women used the word “hungry” to describe how much they want to win their second Grand Slam title. Both say their goal is to keep cool and not let their emotions get the best of them on the big day.
In that respect, the sixth-seeded Li enters the final with an advantage.
The 30-year-old Li is in top physical form and making a Grand Slam comeback. After becoming the first Chinese tennis player to win at a major in 2011, she hit a slump. But she hired Justine Henin’s former coach six months ago and the partnership has produced rapid results.
Li charged into the semifinals at the Australian Open without dropping a set. As a result, she will return to the top five after beating No. 4-ranked Agnieszka Radwanska in the quarterfinals.
She needed just 93 minutes Wednesday (Thursday in Australia) to power past No. 2 Maria Sharapova, 6-2, 6-2. She then charmed an adoring crowd by cracking jokes during an on-court interview. She kidded about her husband’s snoring, her attempts to lose weight and the tough training by coach Carlos Rodriguez – before turning to the stands to thank him.
“You don’t need to push me anymore. I will push myself,” she told Rodriguez, who helped Henin win seven majors and seems to have a knack for guiding players past their nerves.
“I don’t know what happened today,” Li said later. “I just came to the court feeling like, ‘OK, just do it!”
A similar slogan carried over into Azarenka’s semifinal, where her rap star friend Redfoo sat in the stands cheering her on in a T-shirt that read: “Let’s Do It.”
The confident and big-hitting Azarenka also advanced in straight sets, beating American teenager Sloane Stephens, 6-1, 6-4. But the victory was packed with drama and ended with the top-ranked player defending herself against accusations of gamesmanship by leaving the court for a medical timeout.
Serving for the match at 5-3, the 23-year-old Azarenka wasted five match points, lost her serve – then called a timeout. She sat with a trainer and left the court during a nine-minute medical break. She returned to close out the match by breaking Stephens’ serve.
But she raised suspicion during her interview on center court.
“Well, I almost did the choke of the year,” a relieved Azarenka said to the crowd. “I just felt a little bit overwhelmed. I realized I’m one step away from the final and nerves got into me for sure.
“I love to play here and I just couldn’t lose, that’s why I was so upset.”
Azarenka, who has a history of on-court tantrums, didn’t help herself in a TV interview after the match.
“I couldn’t breathe. I had chest pains,” she said, when asked why she left the court. “It was like I was getting a heart attack.”
After surviving her semifinal, Azarenka had a post-match news conference where she said she was dealing with a rib injury that made it hard to breathe. She said her earlier comments were a misunderstanding.
Australian Open officials said the tournament doctor reported that Azarenka had left knee and rib injuries.
“Right now, I just need to calm down with the whole situation (and) make sure that my body’s right,” Azarenka said.
If the reaction at Rod Laver Arena on Thursday was any indication, the crowd favorite for the final is Li — who won over a lot of fans in her match and perhaps even more as a result of Azarenka’s situation.
Australian crowds love their defending champions but dislike any whiff of bad sportsmanship. Accusations against Azarenka immediately surged through social media platforms.
By reaching the final, Azarenka retains her No. 1 ranking, but has said that’s not her focus.
“I’m really hungry to defend my title,” she said. “That is my first goal... to win the tournament.”
If she masters her jitters and comes into the final focused, Li will have a tough fight.
Azarenka leads 5-4 in career matches, including the last four times they’ve played. However, Li has a better record at Grand Slams, having beaten Azarenka at the 2011 Australian Open before reaching the final that year. Li also beat the Belarussian later that year at the French Open before winning the title.
“What should I worry about?” Li said when asked if she was nervous for the match. “I was working so hard in winter training. I think now everything is coming back to me.”
On the day of the final, here’s her plan: “I come to the court, take my racket and enjoy the tennis.”