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AO Women's Final Preview: Azarenka vs. Li

Victoria Azarenka and Li Na will meet in a match that will determine the WTA No.1. Tennis Now's Erik Gudris preview tomorrow's AO Women's Finals.

By Erik Gudris

Li Na Australian Open Open (January 24, 2013) -- The women's finals of the 2013 Australian Open will be contested between two women, who frankly, few people expected to even get there. And that's saying something considering one of them is Victoria Azarenka, who at least at the moment, is still the highest ranked player in the world while the other, Li Na, an experienced veteran, is now into her third career Grand Slam final.

But that's what happens when you are competing in the same era as Serena Williams, a five-time champion of Melbourne who many thought would roll through the field. Azarenka was expected to meet Williams in the semifinals in a match many thought would decide the No. 1 ranking. Instead, Azarenka faced off against young American Sloane Stephens who defeated Williams in the quarterfinals.

Azarenka won that match --  but not without controversy -- as she took what many felt was a suspicious, though totally within the rules, extended time out to deal with a "breathing" problem as she explained it. If Azarenka was truly injured we'll never know, but it was very clear that she was feeling not only the pressure of closing out that match, but also of defending her title and her No. 1 ranking.

The phrase "uneasy lies the head that wears the crown" is probably the best way to describe Azarenka's trip to the finals. To put it bluntly, Azarenka has played good enough to get to the final round. She survived a scare against another American Jamie Hampton earlier in the event and although Azarenka has dismissed the rest of her opponents in straight sets, she has rarely displayed convincing form of someone who is seeking her second Major title.

Enter Li Na who has had some of her best and worst moments of her career in Melbourne in two losing efforts to Kim Clijsters. The Chinese star may have been a darkhorse contender to few this year, but her upset wins over Agnieszka Radwanska and Maria Sharapova has helped Li show off her improved fitness and ability to stay patient in long rallies thanks to her new coach Carlos Rodriguez who previously worked with Justine Henin.

Many have commented that there's a new aura about Li. She's always ready with a quick quip, but lately she looks more calm and less unsure of herself in the big moments on court. In her press conference after beating Sharapova, Li said that she was "hungry" to win the title now whereas before, as in 2011, she may have just been happy to be a part of the finals. In contrast, Azarenka may keep telling us she is fighting hard to repeat as champion, but it doesn't sound as convincing.

The head to head between both players is five to four in favor of Azarenka. But both women have had several close three set matches, including on hard courts, with each splitting the two finals they contested. This suggests that tomorrow's finals will be another close battle. That is unless Li racks up the usual unforced errors she is known for that could give Azarenka more opportunities than Sharapova had. Azarenka, on the other hand, will have to keep Li on the move, construct each point with precision, and hope that Li doesn't start cracking winner after winner as she certainly can.

With her nemesis Williams out of the picture, it really is up to Azarenka now to prove that she is the best in world. If Azarenka doesn't win tomorrow, then Williams will ascend to the top ranking. The match is Azarenka's to take, but as we've seen all throughout the tournament, she is very vulnerable to having someone take advantage and prove that on that day that they are the better player. After a tumultuous two weeks, Li Na has been the best player in her field and as long as she executes her game as she has so far, then she should finally raise her second Major trophy.

Pick: Li Na in three sets

(Photo Credit: Mark Peterson/Corleve)


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