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Jeff Cooper

Azarenka's Second Australian Open Title and Li's Forehand

By January 26, 2013

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Victoria Azarenka defeated Li Na 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 in Saturday's women's singles final at the Australian Open to claim her second consecutive title there.  Li turned her ankle and fell twice during the match, first in the second set, and then, in the third, also hitting her head fairly hard on the court, but her movement did not seem significantly impaired.  Her main problem was inconsistency, as her 36 winners were eclipsed by her 57 unforced errors.  Azarenka had 18 winners to 28 unforced errors, almost exactly the same ratio, but with half of each of Li's numbers.  After the first two sets balanced each other out, the key difference in consistency evolved in the third set, where Victoria reduced her unforced errors to only 4, while Na's grew to 21.

The most notable change in Li's game since she started working with coach Carlos Rodriguez is more topspin on her forehand.  She now hits her forehand with a shallow loop on her backswing.  A loop isn't needed to create topspin, but for some players, it provides a physical mechanism to help them remember to get the racquet below the ball, which is absolutely necessary to create topspin.  Many top players, including some of the heaviest topspin hitters, do a loop backswing and then pause briefly before starting their forward swings, but Li's swings are usually continuous.  One drawback of a continuous loop is that the entire swing process takes longer, making the timing more difficult and increasing the likelihood of meeting the ball a bit late, which will typically send the ball into the net.  Most of Li's errors on both sides went into the net, and she uses the same continuous loop on her backhand, but although lateness is the most common cause of hitting the net, errors in racquet angle and failing to get below the ball can have the same result.  Li's forehand is certainly much better now than ever before, and she might love the smoothness and rhythm of her current swing, but it would be interesting to see whether her forehand would improve further by her executing her shallow loop backswing sooner and then pausing briefly before she starts her forward swing.  A paused loop would get her racquet below the ball, but also have her racquet ready sooner for her forward swing.

By defending her title, Azarenka holds onto the number one ranking with which she started 2013.  She showed impressive mental toughness against Li, as the crowd was solidly against her, in part because of Li's popularity, but more so because of her controversial medical time-out in the previous round.  Victoria doesn't have the very biggest offensive weapons in the game or the best defensive skills, but she's just below the top tier in both, and that balance, along with her tenacity, make her tough to beat.

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