A tale of two champions

New York Times Posted: Jan 29, 2013 at 0218 hrs
Melbourne Christopher Clarey

So, after all that fuss, sweat and suspense - after late-night finishes, medical timeouts and a major upset of Serena Williams — the 2013 Australian Open will look like business as usual in the tennis history books. The defending champions in singles were Victoria Azarenka and Novak Djokovic, and they will remain the defending champions after Azarenka’s three-set victory over Li Na on Saturday and Djokovic’s four-set victory over Andy Murray on Sunday night.

Djokovic, the 25-year-old from Serbia, and Azarenka, the 23-year-old from Belarus, remain No.1 in the rankings. Both are proud and powerful. Both had to sacrifice a normal childhood and leave their families for an extended period in their early teens in order to progress. Djokovic left Serbia for Germany and later Italy. Azarenka left for Spain and later the United States.

But they remain very different public figures. Djokovic has an easy, increasingly sophisticated manner that softens the impression generated by his labour-intensive game. With his prominent place in Serbian culture, he is accustomed to being treated like an ambassador as much as an athlete, but there is an impishness to him that keeps the whole enterprise from veering, for now, into pomposity (not that it makes him any easier to beat).

Hungrier for success

Azarenka still seems edgier, more earnest and palpably hungrier for success. Those are useful qualities in a Darwinian sport where the margins at the top are narrow and where Williams -- despite her loss here to Sloane Stephens -- still looms over the field with her powerful serve and personality. But Azarenka’s useful tennis qualities are harder for fans to embrace. Though she clearly knows how to have fun and is quick to make a joke or strike a dance pose in more private settings, she has yet to project that lighter, more nuanced side to the public.

Melbourne did not help, at least not in the short term, as the catcalls and scattered whistles made clear during the women’s final. The acoustics of her power game, with her prolonged wails on impact, have already predisposed many fans to resist her. That background noise surely contributed to some of the tone of the skepticism and resentment sparked by her decision to seek medical treatment at a critical phase of semifinal with Stephens and then explain it initially by talking about her nerves instead of any injury.

Whereas Azarenka — who can deliver a withering glance — might have gone into a tight-lipped, defensive crouch in earlier years, she took a more open approach to this public-relations crisis. She also said that she had reached out to Stephens by text message.

“For me, it was important that me and Sloane are okay, and we talked yesterday, so we’re all good,” she said. “I sent her a message because I think she was flying, so the phone was off. She sent me back a message, so I’ll see her in Doha.” (The Qatar Open starts in two weeks.)

In the uproar after the semifinal, Azarenka explained her code of ethics and explained that she truly had a breathing problem linked to a rib injury and was not simply trying to calm her nerves or break Stephens’s rhythm by seeking treatment.

She repeated all this in a calm, mature voice with the appropriate touch of vulnerability, and she handled the final and all its plot twists — which included two medical timeouts for Li — with poise as well. The poker face was soon gone, however. And one of the images that will endure from the final was her hunched forward in her seat and sobbing into her towel.

Told that she did not look entirely happy in victory, she thought for a moment. “It wasn’t happy but inside it was happy,” she said. “It was probably really scary tears of joy.”

Win before the final

Djokovic’s emotional peak came a week earlier in Melbourne this year: on the first Sunday instead of the final Sunday as he held off Stanislas Wawrinka in five sets in the fourth round and celebrated by ripping his shirt off his body. “I didn’t feel I was a better player on the court that night,” Djokovic said. “Stan deserved to win maybe even more than I’ve done, but it’s sport. I’ve had lots of those kinds of tricky intense situations in matches where I have to come back from match points down.”

He is now 18-6 in five-set matches (compare that with Roger Federer’s 21-17 record) and has won eight of his last nine. It is hard to separate that strike rate from his increased endurance and his exceptional powers of recovery. But whatever the training regimen, it takes a true champion to find the precision under pressure that Djokovic did on match point against Wawrinka and that he found to turn the match against Murray, who looked ready to run through walls for the title in the early phases of play.