MELBOURNE, Australia - World No.1 Victoria Azarenka overcame an in-form opponent on Saturday night and won her second Grand Slam title right where she won her first a year ago, rallying from a set down to beat Li Na in a dramatic three-setter and successfully defend her Australian Open crown.
Though she broke in the first game, Azarenka soon fell far behind against Li, losing five of the next six games for the Chinese to build a 5-2 lead; Azarenka cut that lead to 5-4 and nearly evened it up, saving three set points in that game - but she double faulted on the fourth set point. First set Li, 6-4.
Azarenka came out strong in the second set, winning the first three games, and after Li got on the board for 3-1 was when the first dramatic turn turned up - Li went over on her left ankle, taking a medical timeout to get it taped up. Upon taking the court again the Chinese still hung tough with Azarenka, catching up to 4-all, but Azarenka snuck out the next two games. Second set Azarenka, 6-4.
The two traded breaks in the first two games of the third and Li held for 2-1 when another break came - a 10-minute break for the traditional Australia Day fireworks. And after that, another dramatic turn - Li went down on the court again, having to take another timeout to make sure everything was clear.
While Li was battling all kinds of circumstances and hanging as tough as she could, in the end Azarenka was just too solid, and one last Li unforced error put her across the finish line. The No.1-seeded Azarenka finished the fortnight with the trophy, edging the No.6-seeded Li in three, 46 64 63.
Li - a huge crowd favorite Down Under - addressed the crowd after receiving her runner-up trophy.
"First, congratulations to Victoria," Li said. "Thanks for all the sponsors for making a fantastic tournament - I really enjoy playing here. Thanks to my team, though two weeks ago I really hated them because they were pushing me a lot! And thanks to all the fans here for supporting me so much.
"I know I'm not young, but I have to say I'm really looking forward to coming back next year."
Azarenka, who burst into tears at her changeover chair after the victory, followed Li to the podium, addressing the fans after receiving the champion's trophy for the second consecutive year.
"It's been a wonderful two weeks for me," the World No.1 said. "I will always keep a very special memory of this court - it will always be in my heart. And also congratulations to Li Na - it has been a great start of the year for you - best of luck and I hope to see you in many more finals.
"And the last thing I wanted to say is Happy Australia Day everybody!"
Azarenka's No.1 ranking was on the line in the final - if she lost to Li, Serena Williams would have taken over No.1. But Azarenka will now stay on top, with Williams moving up to No.2 and Maria Sharapova and Agnieszka Radwanska rounding out the Top 4 at No.3 and No.4. Li will move up to No.5.