Good guy, bad guy, hero, villain – this is the mother’s milk of sports.
Boxer Muhammed Ali was charismatic and appealing. His foe Joe Frazer was boorish and crude. Celtic Bill Russell played with grace and intelligence. Huge, hulking Wilt Chamberlain, less so. Whatever trail-blazing Martina Navratilova might do, she could not dent the sugar-sweet popularity of proud ‘n perky Chrissie Evert.
In this day and age, as our philosopher king Andre Agassi has told us, “image is everything,” and the Aussie Open final featured too ships going in different directions.
Li Na is an inexplicable superstar. For decades, China has had a certain huge, anonymous, inaccessible quality. Yes, your grandfather’s China is long gone: the Red menace, the Little Red Book and the Cultural Revolution but distant memories.
Today we have the Li Na revolution.
From a vast nation of huge cities you never heard of, a language few can master and changes you can’t grasp, comes a woman with a round brown Buddhist face, a charm that endears, broken English that captivates and an unvarnished candor that cuts through all the sound-bite spin.
The most enchanting player since giggly young Jennifer Capriati, Li has 10 million Twitter followers, and her key matches draw 120 million Chinese viewers. Some may view China through the lens of cheap sneakers and Walmart bargains. But Li defies the mass stereotype and gives face (brimming with character and often beaming) to a mighty culture.
In contrast, when young Vika Azarenka comes on court, she sports a hoodie that partially hides her severe face. For all her youth, athleticism and off-court jolliness; for all her achievement and an appealing backstory of a lost youth sacrificed to ambition, an old-school granny who put her woe-is-me struggles in clear, tough-love perspective and a wild rocker pal, she has an image problem that will take some nifty retooling to fix.
After all, tennis’ queen Victoria has a win-at-all-costs, Lendl-like intensity. And, in addition to her take-no-prisoners ‘tude, she emits those piercing, karate-like shrieks that impose auditory pain and invite satire. Worse than that, she suffered a PR free-fall when, deep into her semi, she faltered in closing out the charming teen whiz Sloane Stephens and, when clearly her foe had gained all the momentum, she walked off court.
At first Vika said she just needed to calm down. “I almost did the choke of the year,” she confided. “I just felt a little bit overwhelmed … and nerves got into me, for sure.” Seemingly she just needed to gain her composure. But later on, as her handlers looked on, she explained that it was all caused by a rib that locked up on her. Perhaps so, still the press and fans alike ribbed her. Okay kid, you didn’t break the law, but you violated the spirit of the rules and the very notion of fair play. Pam Shriver told the New York Times that “everybody’s appalled.” Pat McEnroe added that it was an “absolute travesty.” No wonder the headlines read Melbourne vs. Victoria.
Life’s not easy, Vika.
And neither was her opponent. When Li Na wasn’t joking about her snoring husband or that it was the money that was motivating her, she went out and hired a considerable coach – Justine Henin’s beloved old mentor Carlos Rodriquez – who toughened her up and coached up both her forehand and her mindset. The 2011 French Open champ and Aussie Open finalist was arguably playing the best ball in the tournament as she dismissed Wimbledon finalist Agniezka Radwanska in the quarters and destroyed Maria Sharapova (who had only dropped 9 games coming into the semis) 6-2, 6-2.
In the final, Li used her new grips and old (30-year) legs to run Vika corner to corner and score an impressive 6-4 first-set win. But Azarenka is nothing if not a fighter, and she quickly raced to a 3-1 lead when Li suddenly twisted her untaped left ankle and fell to the ground awkwardly.
How bizarre. Azarenka, who kept Stephens waiting in the semis, was now kept waiting. Then again this match would prove to be – not the most important final, not the most dramatic final – but certainly the most bizarre major final in memory. Here we had young vs. old and the sweet Li vs. sour Vika storylines, the gamesmanship brouhaha, two different injury scares, including Li banging her head on the court, and an untimely nine-minute holiday fireworks show.
No wonder commentator Eleanor Preston asked, “Are there any UFOs landing?”
But, in the end, there were no landings, and nothing would stop Vika, who overcame a vein-bulging crowd howling for her foe, three lengthy delays, a torrent of fierce Li winners and her own sketchy play. Gaining confidence, Vika served big under pressure, found her range and stayed true to her “just win baby” mission to score a throaty 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 win before, at last, she let it all out.
Tears flowing, her chest heaving, the 23-year old couldn’t stop sobbing. After all, she had defended her title. She was now unofficially the best hardcourt player in the game, and she was still ranked No. 1.
But did this make the suddenly human 23-year old No. 1 in the hearts of fans?
Hardly. “I keep wanting to warm up to her,” said broadcaster Chris Bowers. “But, it’s not easy.” Neither was Vika’s defense of her Aussie Open crown.