Li Na is one of the most congenial and humorous players on tour, but her 4-6 6-4 6-3 loss to top seed Victoria Azarenka in Saturday night’s women’s singles final is likely to sting for some time, even though she always does a good job of keeping a smile on her face in public.
The 30-year-old played brilliantly during the Australian summer, and despite having lost to Azarenka four straight times coming into Saturday’s final, she was tabbed by many analysts as the favourite to win her maiden Melbourne title.
But two bad spills in the second and third sets where she turned her left ankle and was forced to take medical timeouts didn't help her cause, and in the end, despite having a massive amount of crowd support, she could not come up with enough key shots during the big moments.
“I really feeling I wish I can win the title because this my favourite Grand Slam,” Li said.
“But the second time I was in the final, and twice I lost the match. So of course I was feeling a little bit sad.
Li admirably went for her shots and played aggressive tennis all match long, but the fast-moving and super-steady Azarenka was relentless and effective after losing the first set.
LI had had her chances in both the second and third sets to turn the tables on the Belarusian, but she served badly for the most part, only winning 44 per cent of her service points overall. Her usually consistent groundstrokes were sporadic: at times she would kiss the corners with winners that would bring the crowd to its feet, and at others she would fly her forehand long or bury her two-handed backhand into the net.
She finished the contest with 36 winners, but also was responsible for a whopping 57 unforced errors, 21 off her forehand side and 30 off her backhand wing.
Some of those errors likely came because her ankle was unstable. After she held to 2-1 in the third set, play was paused for nine minutes as fireworks celebrating Australia Day went off nearby. On the first point after the delay, Li dramatically fell hard running to her left, hurting her ankle again and banging the back of her head on the court.
“After the match, I was feeling like, ‘How many years I didn't falling down in the court?’,” she said.
“I mean, it was amazing today. It was twice on the court. Maybe like 5 per cent I was falling down again. What are you doing on the court, like juniors.”
After the doctor cleared her to play, she fought valiantly, but could only win one game the rest of the way as Azarenka was rock-solid, only committing four unforced errors in the final set.
“Without falling down I was feeling pretty good,” Li said with a laugh.
“Is very tough match. She's No. 1, defending champion. So I think today in like important games she was play better than me, so that's why she can win the title.”
Li has improved a good deal since she took coach Carlos Rodriguez on her team last August, and will climb to No. 5 in the rankings when they are released on Monday.
She is fitter than she’s ever been, appears to be very motivated and is comfortable with her style of game. The 2011 Roland Garros champion has said that she eventually wants to settle down and start a family, but she has set no firm retirement date.
It wouldn't be a surprise to see her back competing in the Australian Open final next year.
“I know I’m not young, but I have to say I’m very looking forward to next year,” said Li, who also reached the Australian Open 2011 final before falling to Kim Clijsters.