Azarenka vs. Li Na in the Australian Open Final: The Stakes

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Azarenka vs. Li Na in the Australian Open Final: The Stakes
Quinn Rooney/Getty Images

Maybe the final lineup did not turn out as many had hoped. With a tournament with three hot favourites—Victoria Azarenka, Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova—the 2013 Australian Open draw has at least turned out half as expected. Victoria Azarenka, the defending champion, will face off against the seventh seed Li Na for the title on Saturday.

For both women this will be, as Grand Slam finals go, no ordinary match—but it will not be an occasion they are unused to. Azarenka, the defending champion, won her maiden Slam final last year, while Li Na made her way to the final at this tournament in 2011, losing to Kim Clijsters. The No. 1 Chinese player also won the French Open that year—she is certainly no slouch.

The stakes are high, although not increasingly so for one over the other. Azarenka, already something of a tennis pioneer in Belarus, being the first from her country to win a Grand Slam and attain the top ranking, will be attempting to add new achievements to a list of growing distinctions—defending a major title for the first time.

Added pressure (or motivation, perhaps) lies in the fact that her loss tonight might mean the end of her reign as No. 1—incredibly, Serena Williams, who was shocked in the quarters, will in that scenario assume the top spot. Perhaps Azarenka, in this respect, plays to save the ranking system from a rather ludicrous possibility.

Jokes aside, however, winning a second major will be huge for her—and for women's tennis. No one active apart from Williams, the often sidelined Kuznetsova and Sharapova are winners of multiple majors. It may set the tone for a new era.

On Li Na's side she will obviously be hoping to reveal the ludicrous rankings possibility described above, although at the forefront of her thoughts will surely be the chance to avenge her disappointment in 2011.

A win for her will also make her a multiple Slam winner. A slightly more dour motive, however, might be found in Li's having lost her last four matches against Azarenka, none of which were on a Grand Slam stage.

She has proven her mettle at the highest level in the last two rounds, against Radwanska (who had beaten her in Sydney a week ago), and Sharapova (whose lopsided loss was made all the more lopsided by the lopsidedness with which she had progressed through the draw hitherto). 

The odds are hard to judge—it is on paper and in practice a fairly even match, both with similar styles and experience. But regardless of the winner, women's tennis will have won.

It is already the second Grand Slam in a row in which two major champions face off for the title. If one recalls the recent frustrating years when the likes of Ivanovic, Jankovic or Wozniacki failed to legitimise their top rankings with Slams, this in itself must be a sign of an evolution in the women's game.

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