2013 Australian Open: Women’s singles final preview

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The 2013 Australian Open women’s final will see Victoria Azarenka trying to defend her title, while Li Na attempts to win her first Australian Open after falling short in 2011.

Both players are 1-1 in Grand Slam finals, but only one can win her second Grand Slam singles title.

Victoria Azarenka hasn’t been forced to raise a sweat in any of her six matches so far this tournament, however she was pushed to three sets by Jamie Hampton and also had her work cut out by Svetlana Kuznetsova in the quarterfinals.

In the semi-finals, Azarenka required six match points to finally close out the giant killer, Sloane Stephens, who had defeated Serena Williams in the final eight stage.

Those factors, as well as playing the second semi-final in 35 degree heat, could work against Azarenka if she falls behind in the first stages of Saturday night’s final.

Li Na has had a much easier run, not dropping a set along the way to the final. She won her first four matches quite easily, before her first genuine test came in the form of Poland’s Agnieszka Radwanska, who hadn’t dropped a set during a 13-match winning streak to start the season.

Li used her experience to defeat the Pole and stop her hot start to the year. Then she easily dispatched Maria Sharapova, who had dropped just nine games in her first five matches, in the semi-finals, winning 6-2, 6-2. This also ended Sharapova’s hot start to the season, in which she won five consecutive matches without dropping a set.

For Victoria Azarenka, retaining her Australian Open title would underline her current status as the world’s best player. She will keep her top ranking regardless of what happens on Saturday night, as Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams were beaten in the semi-finals and quarter-finals respectively.

However, she will be risking 800 rankings points, so if she loses, Sharapova and Williams will have a chance to either eat into Azarenka’s lead or become World No. 1 themselves throughout the next month.

A win would also see Azarenka become the third woman since 2000 to successfully defend her title, after Jennifer Capriati (2001-2002) and Serena Williams (2009-2010).

For Li Na, it’s about redemption. You may remember in the fourth round last year she held four match points in the second set tiebreak of her match against Kim Clijsters, only to see them all slip away.

This led to her losing the match and she subsequently left the press conference in tears.

Perhaps this is the motivation behind her run to the final this year. She insists she has unfinished business in Australia and if she can capture the title this Saturday night it’ll complete one of the great redemption stories in women’s tennis.

This will be the tenth meeting between the pair, but only their third at Grand Slam level.

Azarenka leads 5-4 overall, but Li Na has won their two Grand Slam meetings, at the 2011 Australian and French Opens; on both occasions, she went on to reach the final, winning in the latter.

They are tied 1-all in finals, both of which have been played in Australia, with Li winning the 2008 Mondial Australian Hardcourts (now known as the Brisbane International) and Azarenka winning in Sydney last year.

What’s also interesting is that Carlos Rodriguez will be coaching his fourth Australian Open final. He previously coached Justine Henin to the title matches in 2004, 2006 and 2010, being successful in the first.

Now he has a chance to win Li Na her second Grand Slam title, while for him it would be his eighth Grand Slam title coached (having coached Henin to all seven of her Grand Slam titles).

Rodriguez took the reins of Li Na following last year’s failed Olympic campaign. Li immediately rediscovered her best form, reaching the finals in Montreal (losing to Petra Kvitova) and Cincinnati (defeating Angelique Kerber).

She was also able to remain in the Top 10 for the rest of the year and earn a place at the WTA year-end championships in Istanbul. She may have only won one match, but she also challenged Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka before ultimately succumbing to her opponents’ experience.

Li has had an impressive start to the season, taking the title in Shenzhen and then reaching the semi-finals in Sydney, succumbing to eventual champion Agnieszka Radwanska.

If she can take the title in Australia, she will prove her doubters wrong and that age is definitely no barrier. We saw Serena Williams win the US Open last year and turn 31 just two weeks later. Li Na will also be 31 next month, so perhaps she can also draw on what Williams was able to do in New York last year.

Azarenka has also had a hot start to the season, though she had to withdraw from her Brisbane semi-final against Serena Williams due to a toe infection. But this didn’t seem to affect Azarenka, whose undefeated streak has now stretched to eight leading into Saturday’s decider.

By winning the Australian Open again, Azarenka can also hit back at the critics who said if it wasn’t for Sloane Stephens in the quarter-finals, Azarenka wouldn’t be where she is right now and she would have lost her No. 1 ranking to Serena.

Come Saturday night Victoria Azarenka will become a dual Australian Open champion or or Li Na a dual Grand Slam champion. What’s guaranteed is that there will be a two-time Grand Slam champion.

It’s history in the making. But who will it be?

I’m tipping Azarenka in three tight sets.

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