Victoria Azarenka defended her Australian Open title at Melbourne Park on Saturday night, but not before the drama that preceded the final spilled over into the match itself. A hostile crowd, two injury time-outs, the annual Australia Day fireworks and a sobbing champion provided the backdrop to an Azarenka triumph that was less popular than it was hard-earned.
The top seed defeated China's Li Na 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 to claim a second grand slam title from three finals, thus retaining the No.1 ranking for a 49th week. There were boos when she arrived, and cheers that greeted her every error, but Azarenka played through the ill-will and the interruptions to repeat her 2012 success against Maria Sharapova, but in circumstances that were far, far more testing.
Azarenka did not celebrate after converting her first match point, but dropped her racquet, saluted her box, and walked to her chair, burying her head in her towel and crying uncontrollably. Two days of tension came pouring out, and she left the court to compose herself before the trophy presentation. Her coach, Sam Sumyk, had reassured the crying 23-year-old ''you are a champion''. The title, for a second time, was hers.
In keeping with the theme of the week, there were multiple injury dramas, the second and most serious on the resumption from the 10-minute interruption for the riverside pyrotechnics. Li reached for a wide backhand and not only re-injured the ankle twisted early in the match, but whacked her head on the blue plexicushion and needed a second injury time-out.
The first came during the fourth point of the fourth game of the second set, Li twisting her - untaped - left ankle when attempting to change direction to chase a wrong-footing backhand volley. She grimaced, then hobbled to the courtside chair, an assessment by the medical staff preceding a medical time-out. The process took close to six minutes.
Azarenka showed immediate concern, then sat for the first three minutes, before asking for some old balls and practising her serve. When the match resumed, Li held serve with consecutive backhand errors. Crisis averted, it seemed, and opportunity knocked immediately when Li earned three break-back points in the next game. She was unable to convert. So it continued, with almost as many breaks as holds.
Much of the pre-match interest centred on the reception Azarenka would receive from a Melbourne Park crowd whose support for Li was magnified by the ill-will surrounding Azarenka's controversial medical time-out late in her semi-final against Sloane Stephens.
And so it was, for the contrast between the players' respective welcomes was clear for all to hear. The smattering of hoots that greeted Azarenka during the introductions was appalling. They were louder still in the ninth game of the second set, when Azarenka smacked a ball away in frustration after a fault.
No latitude. Little forgiveness. For a change, it was not Azarenka's shrieks that were the volume-related talking point.
The match itself was untidy, largely uninspiring, with errors outweighing winners by some margin, and the fiercely pro-Li crowd showing an almost unsporting enthusiasm for every Azarenka error, even her double-faults. The hostility seemed to unsettle the top seed, who managed just two winners in the first nine games.
Not that Li showed the semi-final form that allowed just four games to second seed Maria Sharapova; an inexplicable miss on a drive volley that would have given her a 4-1 lead indicative of some nerves and tightness of her own. Instead she dropped that serve, and two others, in a 40-minute set that ended (cue mighty cheer) with Azarenka's second double-fault.