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Originally published Saturday, January 26, 2013 at 8:03 PM

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Victoria Azarenka retains Australian Open title | Tennis

Top-seeded Victoria Azarenka of Belarus successfully defended her Australian Open title, beating sixth-seeded Li Na of China 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 in the final.

The New York Times

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MELBOURNE, Australia — After the tears and the explanations, Victoria Azarenka of Belarus was expecting to be the finalist with the biggest obstacles to surmount Saturday.

She has been far from her relentless best at this Australian Open for reasons that remain unclear, and she expected to be greeted with hostility after an emotional two days in which she was widely criticized for seeking medical attention at a critical phase of her semifinal victory over 19-year-old American Sloane Stephens.

But as it turned out at Rod Laver Arena, Li Na was the finalist who was in for a traumatic match. In a momentum-swinging final interrupted by fireworks and, yes, more medical timeouts, Azarenka successfully defended her title by rallying to win 4-6, 6-4, 6-3.

Li, a 30-year-old Chinese standout who was also a finalist here in 2011, twisted her ankle twice and said she had blacked out for a moment after the back of her head slammed onto the court surface early in the third set, after her second tumble.

"Maybe if I'm not falling down, it's another story," Li said. "You never know. But the truth: I was falling down, so nothing can change."

The victory allowed Azarenka, 23, to retain the No. 1 ranking in the world ahead of American Serena Williams — and it was testimony to Azarenka's powers of resilience and concentration, considering all the disruptions and negative energy coming her way on and off the court.

"She's solid, she's tough," her coach, Sam Sumyk, said. "I know that, and I knew that before. I wasn't really worried about that part.

"We sat up and spoke about this last night. I'm not looking for credit, but our conclusion was, let's do everything we can to let the racket talk."

When the final was over, Azarenka dropped that racket, eyes wide, and was soon on her chair sobbing into a towel after shaking hands with Li, who shed a few tears of her own before and after her visit to the interview room.

"It's been a long match; it's been a tough match," Azarenka said. "Li Na was absolutely playing great tennis. Unfortunate things that happened to her, you know, but that's sport. But I'm just happy that everything I went through, I still could manage to give my best and really come out there and try to focus on my game and play tennis that I can produce."

Azarenka's baseline-hugging power game is a near-perfect fit for the true-bouncing, hardcourt version of the sport. And this 2-hour, 40-minute victory allowed Azarenka to join an elite club. She is the fifth active women's player with more than one major singles title. The others: Serena Williams (15), Venus Williams (seven), Maria Sharapova (four) and Svetlana Kuznetsova (two).

Azarenka spent some of Friday making the media rounds in an attempt to re-emphasize she had not fabricated an injury or intentionally disrupted Stephens' rhythm with a medical timeout of about 10 minutes.

Li received more fan support. Most of Azarenka's winners got polite, even subdued, applause.

"I was expecting way worse, to be honest," Azarenka said.

Repeat winners
Australian Open consecutive women's champions
Player Years
Victoria Azarenka 2012-13
Serena Williams 2009-10
Jennifer Capriati 2001-02
Martina Hingis 1997-99
Monica Seles 1991-93
Steffi Graf 1988-90
Evonne Goolagong 1974-76
Margaret Smith Court 1969-71
Margaret Smith 1960-66
*N. Wynne Bolton 1940, 46-48
Joan Hartigan 1933-34
C. McInnes Buttsworth 1931-32
Daphne Akhurst 1928-30
Daphne Akhurst 1925-26
Mall Molesworth 1922-23
* The Australian Open was not competed from 1941-45 because of World War II

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