If Victoria Azarenka was a football team she would be Millwall. The Australian Open women's champion left Melbourne to the echo of whistles and grumbles, her coach, Sam Sumyk, calling journalists who had the temerity to question her sportsmanship "sharks".
Yet, somehow, the Belarusian managed a celebration, proud to retain her title after beating Li Na 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 in two hours and 40 minutes of high drama on Rod Laver Arena on Saturday. Her Chinese opponent was the darling of the crowd already, but grew in their affection as she fought hard to ignore a rolled ankle and a sore head, which she banged in her second fall.
Azarenka, however, felt vindicated. She fought the crowd and a fine opponent to retain her world No1 ranking and the championship.
Despite the shower of bile that followed her long, poorly-timed medical break in beating the American teenager Sloane Stephens in the semi-finals, she left town smiling. "It was definitely a new experience for me that I think I handled quite well," she said. "I can only learn from [it] and move forward to try to improve as a player and a person."
She added: "What happened with Sloane was a big deal. It came out as a big deal. But I take it as a great learning experience and just try to live the moment and take the best things out of what happened and move forward. I just try to be the best tennis player there is. I cannot go back in time and I can't go forward in time. I can just take control of what I can. I've done that and I'm really proud of that."
Her coach was not so easily calmed. "You're sharks, guys," he told reporters. "When you're after something, your story, when there is no story, you're pretty good, so it's tough. Everybody has to handle it the best way possible.
"I understand you have to do your job, but sometimes you can maybe do it a little bit more … I don't have the right word, I don't want to be mean. She's 23 years old, guys, come on … I think the journalists should take some lessons out of this – not necessarily the athletes. Let's try to be fair here, let's try to say everybody should take a good lesson out of it."
When reminded that she had joined Serena and Venus Williams, Maria Sharapova and Svetlana Kuznetsova as the only active women's players with two or more slam titles, Azarenka said, "It's a very honoured club to be in. To be in the same list with all those champions, it's a privilege.
"And right now it's kind of hard to believe that, because I think of myself as a nine-year-old girl playing against the wall. Picturing these big moments – and right now I'm living those moments – it's like a dream."
Asked to compare her win with last January, she said: "It's a completely different mix of feelings. This one is way more emotional. It's going to be extra special. I never compare my wins or losses in any tournaments, it's just a matter of the feeling you get, things you've been through, because you're the only one who knows what you've been going through these two weeks. So it's definitely an emotional one and it's going to be special."
Li, who twice suffered nasty falls during the final, attempted to look on the bright side. The last time she lost in a final here, to Kim Clijsters in 2011, she went on to win her first major at the French Open a few months later. "I think Maria did the same thing [last year]. She lost the final here and she won the French. So I hope I can do the same this year as well."
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