The Australian Day fireworks were real. Li Na’s timeouts were real. Her twisted ankle and bang on the head were also real and, after the drama finally concluded in the final here on Rod Laver Arena, Victoria Azarenka’s tears were real as she survived the rocky road to her second straight Australian Open crown.
Azarenka, pilloried for the way she took two timeouts before the penultimate game of her semifinal against Sloane Stephens, redeemed herself with a fighting display that earned her a 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 victory over Li, who will be an even bigger star in China after this.
For it was Li who, inadvertently at times, created much of the drama. After playing superbly in a first set that saw serve broken seven times, it seemed that she might upset the world No. 1 until she went over on her ankle midway through the second set and received a three-minute timeout.
So it was Azarenka’s turn to wait, but after heavy strapping was applied, Li was able to whack a winner on the first point she played on the resumption and level at 4-4. However much of her early success had hinged on her ability to scamper around court at high speed and, although she was still moving quite well, she lost her edge and the Belarussian swooped to grab the second set.
Then, after serves were exchanged in the first two games of the third with Li holding to lead 2-1, the fireworks began. The players had been told about this beforehand and were given the choice of playing through the noise or waiting on court for nine minutes.
They chose to wait. Azarenka, surprisingly, actually disappeared for a bathroom break, perfectly legitimate under the circumstances, but probably not the best diplomatic move after her semifinal controversy.
So the match restarted for a second time and on the second point, Li went over on her left ankle again, falling heavily on her back, banging her head on the court as she did so. Gasps from the trainers and Dr. Tim Wood rushing on; stories being rewritten. One wondered what could possibly happen next.
There was real anxiety for a few seconds but the crowd and television viewers were soon offered the warming sight of Li’s lovely smile as the trainer asked her to follow her moving finger to test her reaction to the blow. Even in these troubling moments Li’s innate humor did not desert her.
Afterwards she described how she felt. "I think I was a little bit worried when I was falling down. The head was touching the floor. For two seconds I couldn’t really see anything. It was totally black. So when physio came on, she was, like, ‘Focus on my finger’. I start laughing. I was thinking ‘This is tennis court, not a hospital."
After another timeout, with Azarenka being given another dose of her own medicine, Li was back and actually had a break point on Vika’s serve in the fourth game. But a great backhand winner took care of it and more sweeping winners broke the Chinese serve in the next game.
Li had no intention of giving up and had another break point at 3-4 when she offered up a moon ball which a surprised Azarenka plopped into the net. But Li wasted the chance by putting a backhand wide and the champion, sensing victory, was never in trouble again.
As Li said later, "Without falling down, I was feeling pretty good. But I think in important games she play better than me, so that’s why she can win the title."
On the podium, Azarenka, having dried her tears, said there were many things she wanted to say but wisely held her counsel and just thanked everyone and congratulated Li, whose reputation and level of play under her new coach Carlos Rodriguez only grows.
Li was amazed at the support she received. "I can hear a lot of Chinese fans; also I can see many Chinese flags. It looks like China Open!"
It was, of course, somewhat different for Azarenka who won over sections of the crowd at the end. But it had been hard going. "I was expecting way worse to be honest," she said. "What can you do? You just have to go out there and try to play tennis in the end of the day. That’s what it’s all about. It’s a tennis match.
"Everything that happened with Sloane, it was a big deal, for sure. It came out as a big deal. It wasn’t a big deal on court. But I take it as a great learning experience and try to take the best things out of what happened and move forward."
Afterwards, Mike and Bob Bryan wasted little time in making history as a doubles pair by winning their 13th Grand Slam title with a 6-3, 6-4 victory over the unseeded Dutch team of Robin Haase and Igor Sijsling.
They had been tied at the top of the list with the Australians John Newcombe and Tony Roche and now set out on uncharted waters. This was their 60th Grand Slam event and their 14th straight Australian Open. By winning they extended their record of having won at least one Slam every year since 2005.
If the 34-year-old twins continue playing for a few more years, as they intend to, they will set records that will be very hard to emulate.
Afterwards they said they were not trying to break records as such but just trying to get better. "But it’s great to be part of history, it’s pretty special to have won the most Slams," said Bob.
Asked what made them so good, Mike replied, "Sticking together and always wanting to improve. And never pointing fingers in tough situations. When we lose we go back to the same place and work on what we need to work on to get better. We’re eating, thinking, breathing doubles. We don’t look on ourselves as amazing. That’s for you guys to judge."
Judgment says the Bryan twins are pretty amazing and American tennis should be grateful.