The final of the women’s draw at the Australian Open is an interesting blend of stories. Victoria Azarenka will be looking to become only the third woman, after Jennifer Capriati (2001-2002) and Serena Williams (2009-2010), to defend her title at the Australian Open while Li Na will be looking to redeem herself after her tragic loss to Kim Clizsters in the fourth round at Melbourne last year after possessing four match points.
Victoria Azarenka hardly broke a sweat on her way to the finals, save the three setter against Jamie Hampton. In the semifinals, Azarenka needed six match points to close the curtains on giant killer Sloane Stephen’s dream run. Stephens had defeated Serena Williams in the quarterfinals. The recent inability to close the match in the first five match points and the evident ill effect that the heat has on Azarenka could heavily dent her chances of defending the title.
Li Na, on the other hand has had some semblance of a dream run in this tournament. She didn’t drop a single set on her way to the finals. Her first true challenge appeared in the form of Agnieszka Radwanska who was on a 13 match hot streak. Next came Maria Sharapova in the quarterfinals, who had not only not dropped a set on her way to the semifinals but also surrendered only nine games in the tournament thus far. Li Na brought an end to this streak as well by making quick work of Sharapova in straight sets, 6-2, 6-2.
This victory at the Australian Open is extremely important for Azarenka as it will further establish her as the world’s best woman’s player and also put her comfortable ahead in the points race as the other top contenders, Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams have been eliminated in the semifinals and quarterfinals respectively. If she does not win the title, she stands to forfeit 800 points and that will put her well within the reach of the other two.
For Li Na, it is more of redemption than anything else as she hopes to rid herself of the curse that plagued her last year in the fourth round match where she lost to Clijsters in spite of having four opportunities to bag the match and subsequently left the press conference in tears. Perhaps she converted the plague to motivation that aided her in bringing two hot streaks to an end and ultimately to the finals.
This will be the tenth time that the two will face each other but only their third in a grand slam. Azarenka leads the head to head 5-4 but Li Na has won both their grand slam encounters, at the 2011 French Open and Australian Open, and went on to reach the finals in both, winning in the former.
Li has had an impressive start to the season, taking the title in Shenzhen and then reaching the semi-finals in Sydney, succumbing to eventual champion Agnieszka Radwanska.
If she can take the title in Australia, she will prove her doubters wrong and that age is definitely no barrier. We saw Serena Williams win the US Open last year and turn 31 just two weeks later. Li Na will also be 31 next month, so perhaps she can also draw on what Williams was able to do in New York last year.
Azarenka has also had a hot start to the season, though she had to withdraw from her Brisbane semi-final against Serena Williams due to a toe infection. But this didn’t seem to affect Azarenka, whose undefeated streak has now stretched to eight leading into Saturday’s decider.
By winning the Australian Open again, Azarenka can also hit back at the critics who said if it wasn’t for Sloane Stephens in the quarter-finals, Azarenka wouldn’t be where she is right now and she would have lost her No. 1 ranking to Serena.
Come Saturday night Victoria Azarenka will become a dual Australian Open champion or or Li Na a dual Grand Slam champion. What’s guaranteed is that there will be a two-time Grand Slam champion.
It’s history in the making. But who will it be?
I’m tipping Azarenka in three tight sets.