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The unpopular champion

Azarenka holds her own in front of a hostile crowd, beats Li Na to retain the Australian Open crown and top ranking.

sports Updated: Jan 27, 2013 01:56 IST

The sentiment rolling over the Rod Laver Arena was so with Li Na it threatened to drown the champion Victoria Azarenka in righteousness. The crowd, the American and Australian TV networks - the ballkids too probably - everyone wanted the charming Chinese player to win the Australian Open, to beat the vilain du jour who had hustled the sweet American teenage prodigy Sloane Stephens out of the semifinals with her blatant gamesmanship.

Yet there was something heroic about Azarenka's achievement in retaining the title she won last year by slaying another golden girl, Maria Sharapova. This was a counter-intuitive twist that defied the power of the crowd, and one irreverently embroidered by her boyfriend, the wildly-coiffed American singer, Redfoo, who clutched the hand she reached up to him from the court in victory and uttered the heartfelt quote of the tournament: "I love you, baby - you're f**** amazing."

Of course the microphones picked it up, and there was duly an apology to viewers. You are not supposed to use language like that here, not in tennis, not on Australia Day, even when wrecking a fairytale. That Roger Federer had used similar language the previous night in his match with Andy Murray did not get much of an airing.

If the night had gone to script, Azarenka, although No 1, would not have beaten the sixth seed 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 in two hours and 40 minutes of eventful tennis. The storyboard would have had Li Na getting up from a spill that wrenched her left ankle to blast the wicked witch off the court. It would then have her return from the quite preposterous Australia Day 10-minute fireworks break, tumbled on the ankle again, bang her head and hang on in the third set for a heartwarming win.

Real toughie
But this was real. Azarenka was better than Li Na, by a decent bit at the end. She served efficiently, at 78% on her first effort, to a poor 48% return for Li Na, whose unforced error count was catastrophic in the end.

Azarenka sobbed uncontrollably into her towel at the end, wobbled over to her coach, Samuel Sumyk, who said: "You're a champion", a more decorous acclamation than that of her boyfriend, Redfoo. Azarenka fought so hard to survive in the first set, saving four set points, before throwing it away with a double fault, and the expulsion of joy in the arena was a communal snarl in her direction. It must have taken all her fortitude to ignore it - and she is not known for that quality.

To that point, it was a final of emotion and ill-discipline, with seven service breaks in the first 10 games. Another followed at the start of the second, giving Azarenka rare breathing space under intense pressure. She fought against her instincts to ignore the welter of distractions that followed. Li Na played her part, smiling through serial bouts of adversity.

In between there was some tennis, some of it not bad.

Red faces in Australia over colourful compere
Melbourne: The Australian Open compere set off a firestorm on Twitter on Saturday when he gave a foul-mouthed introduction to beaten women's finalist Li Na on live TV. Sandy Roberts told a packed Rod Laver Arena that the Chinese star was "battered, bruised and quite possibly buggered", meaning she was exhausted but using a word which risks being misconstrued. The comment sparked a flood of comments on Twitter, with many contributors wondering how the word may be translated into Mandarin.