Accused of gamesmanship and dogged by injury, Victoria Azarenka's bid for successive Australian Open titles on Saturday will pit her against an opponent in the form of her life and a centre-court crowd wary of bad sportsmanship.
The Belarusian will take on sixth seed Li Na, who has not dropped a set all tournament and boosted her sky-high confidence further by demolishing last year's finalist Maria Sharapova 6-2, 6-2 in the semis.
Azarenka's performance against Sloane Stephens was less assured, and marred by controversy when the top seed took a near-10 minute medical timeout after blowing five match-points.Azarenka returned to the court with jeers from the crowd, and after closing it out on the sixth match-point, added fuel to the fire by telling the on-court interviewer she nearly had "the choke of the year."
Slammed on social media and grilled by reporters, Azarenka denied she had taken the timeout to calm her nerves, saying it was to receive treatment for a rib injury that was restricting her breathing.
The public relations exercise is unlikely to win much of the Rod Laver Arena crowd back to her corner, especially against an opponent like Li, who lost in the 2011 final to Kim Clijsters and remains a sentimental favourite at Melbourne Park.
Li, who will turn 31 next month and is bidding to become the tournament's oldest women's champion, is in the shape of her life after a punishing off-season boot-camp under new coach Carlos Rodriguez, former mentor to seven-times Slam champion Justine Henin.
Li said she was better prepared to take the title after being overwhelmed in her first attempt against Clijsters, which was also her maiden Slam final.
"(The) first time to the Grand Slam final, I was a little bit shocked because I didn't know what I should do," said Li, who captured her sole major at the French Open a few months later.
Rodriguez has not only encouraged the hard-hitting Li to use more topspin as a defensive weapon and to mix up her play, but also brought a more tactical approach.