Victoria Azarenka has successfully defended her Australian Open title – and retained the number one world ranking – after hitting back to beat a battered and bruised Li Na in three sets.
A final low on quality but high on drama was claimed by the Belarusian 4-6 6-4 6-3 as Li’s hopes of becoming the first Asian player to win in Melbourne were dashed.
Twice the Chinese player had to call for the trainer – the first time after going over on her ankle midway through the second set and again after tumbling in the first point after play resumed following a third-set stoppage for a nearby firework display.
Roared on by a partisan crowd, she battled on bravely but, despite her best efforts, she was unable to prevent Azarenka from claiming the trophy and holding off Serena Williams at the rankings summit.
On a cool night, the final took some time to heat up with both players struggling with nerves.
They exchanged early breaks before Li held and then broke again for 3-1.
Azarenka, whose controversial semi-final win over Sloane Stephens meant she had to face a smattering of boos when she made her way on to Rod Laver Arena, hit back after Li missed a routine drive volley on game point.
But she was still struggling on serve and the Chinese, who won the 2011 French Open, took advantage again with her backhand proving her most potent weapon.
Li held, as did Azarenka for the first time in the match to force her opponent to serve it out at 5-3.
The sixth seed wobbled, making numerous unforced errors, to gift Azarenka the game but she hit back impressively.
Preying on Azarenka’s serving struggles, Li set up four set points and eventually claimed it as the 23-year-old tossed in a double fault.
Although she dropped the opener, there were signs that Azarenka was starting to find her range.
And that trend continued at the start of the second as the power and poise normally associated with the defending champion returned.
Most importantly, her serve also improved.
Azarenka broke for 1-0, held comfortably, and then broke again for 3-0.
A woeful game, in which her forehand broke down completely, slowed the Belarusian’s momentum before the match took another, dramatic turn.
Li appeared in serious trouble of having to retire when she went over on her left ankle during the fourth point of the fifth game – the trainer dashing straight on to court before administering seven minutes of treatment.
When she returned, having had the joint heavily strapped, there appeared no immediate sign of her movement being impaired as she starting hitting winners from all angles to get it back to 2-3.
She then set up three break points at 0-40 for 3-3 but put an easy backhand into the net, allowing Azarenka to rattle off five points on the trot to hold.
Azarenka was also proving profligate on break-point chances, with two coming and going before Li held to keep just one game behind at 3-4.
And she managed to draw level as Azarenka put a routine forehand beyond the baseline.
Having worked so hard to get back into the set, Li promptly undid it all by playing a sloppy game, culminating in a mis-hit backhand on break point as Azarenka sensed her chance.
And she took it to claim the set and take the match to a decider.
Azarenka remained on the front foot as the third set got under way, breaking for an early advantage.
But her issues on serve returned as a double fault saw Li draw level at 1-1.
Li held before a 10-minute stoppage due to the fireworks to celebrate Australia Day.
In the first point following the resumption, Li was down again, tumbling over on the same ankle before hitting her head on the hard surface.
The trainer was called once more, with Azarenka doing well to keep her composure to claim the game after going back behind her opponent with a forehand down the line.
The world number one was starting to get up a head of steam and she broke for 3-2 and swiftly made it 4-2 with one of her best games on serve in the match.
Li had a chance to draw level at 4-4 only to push a backhand return beyond the baseline.
And it proved to be her final opportunity as Azarenka held and then broke to claim her second successive Melbourne crown.