MELBOURNE, Australia — Victoria Azarenka was expecting to be the finalist with the bigger obstacles to surmount in the Australian Open women's final Saturday.
She had been far from her relentless best in the tournament, and she expected to be greeted with hostility after an emotional 48 hours in which she was widely criticized for seeking medical attention at a critical phase of her semifinal victory over Sloane Stephens.
But as it turned out, Li Na was the finalist in for a traumatic evening, and 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, also a Australian finalist in 2011, twisted her ankle not once but twice, and she said she even blacked out for a moment when the back of her head slammed into the court surface early in the third set, after her second tumble of the night. "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, which allowed Azarenka to retain the No. 1 ranking ahead of Serena Williams, was a tribute to her powers of resilience and concentration.
When Li missed her final shot, Azarenka dropped her racket, eyes wide, and then went to the net to shake hands. She was soon on her chair sobbing into a towel.
"It's been a long match … a tough match," said Azarenka, the No. 1 seed. "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 joined an elite club. She is the fifth active women with more than one major singles title. The others are Serena Williams with 15, Venus Williams with seven, Maria Sharapova with four and Svetlana Kuznetsova with two.
In the wake of the debate over Azarenka's medical timeout in the semifinals — she was accused of gamesmanship and manipulating the rules to get time to regain her composure; she said she was having difficulty breathing because of a rib injury — the crowd greeted Li with considerably more warmth as the two walked onto the court. The support for Li became more evident as the match progressed.
Azarenka recovered from the first-set loss and kept her focus despite three extended breaks in play: two when Li required medical timeouts, and one for the customary Australia Day fireworks display.
"I had to stay calm. I had to stay positive," Azarenka said.
BRYANS SET DOUBLES MARK: Americans Bob and Mike Bryan defeated Robin Haase and Igor Sijsling, 6-3, 6-4, to win the men's doubles title for their 13th Grand Slam championship, the most in history. The Bryans, 34-year-old twins, had been tied with Australians John Newcombe and Tony Roche. "To be a part of history is pretty special," Mike Bryan said.