MELBOURNE, Jan 25 (Reuters) – 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 any hint 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 semi-finals.
Azarenka’s performance against American 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.
Medical staff confirmed the treatment, according to tournament director Craig Tiley, and the 23-year-old tried to clear the air in an interview with the host broadcaster Channel Seven on Friday.
“It wasn’t really pleasant but there are some things that you have to deal with and some things you have to learn from,” said Azarenka of the controversy.
“The important thing is just to move forward and have a great match tomorrow.”
If Azarenka requires any additional motivation on Saturday, she knows she will lose her world number one ranking to Serena Williams if she fails to take the title.
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.