MELBOURNE - Victoria Azarenka took everything the Australian Open could throw at her and emerged a champion.
The Belarussian won her second successive title at Melbourne Park on Saturday with a 4-6 6-4 6-3 victory over China's Li Na, bursting into tears as the emotion and stress of a fortnight came pouring out.
"You have to go through rough patches to achieve great things," Azarenka told Channel 7, the host broadcaster. "It's been tough but I am happy here right now. There were new experiences for me in the last couple of days. I have to say thanks to my team for being so supportive.
It was a victory that ensures she will stay at the top of the world rankings for at least a few more weeks but winning a second grand slam title will be of even more satisfaction.
When Li turned her left ankle early in the second set, the match swung in Azarenka's favour. When the Chinese fell again in the third and banged her head, it was getting surreal.
But the way the top seed dug herself out of a hole to clinch victory showed immense mental strength.
In her semi-final against American teenager Sloane Stephens, Azarenka had incurred the wrath of everyone watching when she took a 10-minute double injury timeout just as Stephens was serving to stay in the match.
Her attempts to explain it fell flat and when she was introduced to the Rod Laver Arena on Saturday, a number of jeers rang out.
"I was expecting way worse, actually," she told reporters. "But what can you do? You just have to go out and play your tennis.
"It was definitely not easy with all the attention, with all the press around. But it was definitely a new experience for me that I think I handled quite well.
"I can only learn from this experience and move forward and try to improve as a player and as a person, as well."
During the match, one fan called out "quiet please Azarenka", in reference to her high-pitched grunting and the crowd was firmly behind Li.
On the court, Azarenka could not cope with the former French Open champion's aggressive returns, at times a little slow to react after her serve.
The first set went to the Chinese but slowly and surely, Azarenka began to work Li around the court, extending the rallies and making her opponent work harder for her points. Azarenka took a 3-1 lead in the second set and then watched as Li fell in pain after turning her left ankle.
Considering the drama of her semi-final, Azarenka must have wondered what was going on but she kept her cool and stuck to her gameplan, levelling the match.
The drama moved up a level when Li slipped and hit her head on the court at 2-1 in the third set and when they resumed, Azarenka saved a break point to square the decider at 2-2. After breaking in the next game, she came through a long service game to stay ahead at 5-3 and then broke Li again to clinch victory.
Her celebrations were subdued but when she sat down in her chair, the tears flowed uncontrollably.
"This one is way more emotional (than last year)," she said. "It's going to be extra special for me, for sure." (Editing by Pritha Sarkar)