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Azarenka wins back-to-back Australian titles

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Azarenka wins back-to-back Australian titles

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) Victoria Azarenka won her second consecutive Australian Open title, beating Li Na 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 in a final that included a break for fireworks, two medical timeouts and a nasty fall to the court by Li.

The Chinese star first tumbled to the court after twisting her left ankle in the fifth game of the second set and had it taped.

On the first point after a 10-minute pause in the third set while fireworks boomed overhead from nearby Australia Day celebrations, Li fell over again and slammed the back of her head on the court. The 2011 French Open champion was treated and had another timeout before being allowed to resume the match.

Azarenka, who broke down in tears and sobbed into her towel when the match ended, won five of the next six games to claim her second major title and retain the No. 1 ranking.

``Unfortunately, you have to go through some rough patches to achieve great things. That's what makes it so special for me,'' she said. ``I went through that, and I'm still able to kiss that beautiful trophy.''

Serena Williams, who lost in the quarterfinals, will become the new No. 2 in the rankings.

Americans Mike and Bob Bryan won their record 13th Grand Slam doubles title, defeating the Dutch team of Robin Haase and Igor Sijsling 6-3, 6-4. They had been tied with the Australian greats John Newcombe and Tony Roche with 12 major titles.

The women's 2-hour, 40-minute match featured 16 service breaks, with Li losing her service nine times.

On a crisp Saturday night, Azarenka won the coin toss and elected to receive, a ploy that seemed to work when a nervous Li was broken to start the match. After a double fault on the first point, Li's forehand long gave Azarenka the early lead.

When she first injured her ankle, Li was trailing 3-1 in the second set. When she came back, she won three of the next four games to tie it 4-4, but Azarenka broke back and then held her serve.

Azarenka broke in the opening game of the final set, just two games before the match was suspended for the fireworks, a planned stoppage of play that both players were notified about before the match.

While Azarenka jogged around and practiced her serving motion during the 10-minute fireworks break, Li sat on her courtside chair for most of the stoppage.

It was on the first point that she again fell to the court.

Li said she went ``totally black'' for two seconds after her head hit the court, and when a medical official asked her to follow her finger, ``I started laughing, thinking `This is a tennis court, not like a hospital.'''

Li said the tournament doctor saw her after the match and checked out her head and neck.

``I should be OK,' Li said.

From the outset, the capacity crowd at Rod Laver Arena was firmly behind Li, cheering loudly when she was introduced. Meanwhile, Azarenka's errors were applauded, and one spectator even mocked the loud hooting sound she makes when she hits a shot.

The chill from the crowd was a remnant of Azarenka's semifinal win over American teenager Sloane Stephens, when Azarenka was criticized for taking a questionable 10-minute medical timeout near the end of the match. She was accused of taking the time out to compose herself after she'd wasted five match points while serving for the match against Stephens. Azarenka said she needed the time out because a rib injury was making it difficult for her to breathe and she had a knee injury.

In the second set Saturday, a few fans heckled Azarenka. One man yelled, ``Take a deep breath, Vicky.''

By the end of the match, she appeared to have won some of the fans back. Azarenka's friend, rapper Redfoo, yelled down to her from the player box ``You deserve it,'' and she later blew kisses to the crowd. Someone else in the crowd shouted ``Victoria, we love you.''

Azarekna appeared to quickly forgive the crowd, saying during the trophy presentations that she wanted to thank the fans for their support.

``I will always keep very special memories of this court and it will be in my heart forever,'' she said, pausing several times to find the right words. ``Of course, I (almost) forgot to say congratulations to Li Na, she's had a terrific start to the year ... hope to see you in many, many more finals.''

Later, Azarenka said she expected a ``way worse'' reception from the crowd.

``You just have to go out there and try to play tennis in the end of the day,'' she said. ``The things what happened in the past, I did the best thing I could to explain, to do everything I could, and it was left behind me already.''

Azarenka and Li had met twice before in Grand Slam tournaments, with Li winning both times - in the fourth round of the 2011 Australian Open and quarterfinals at the French Open. Li lost the 2011 Australian Open final to Kim Clijsters but won her first Grand Slam title at Roland Garros a few months later, beating Francesca Schiavone.

But after failing to advance past the fourth round at any major in 2012, Li hired Carlos Rodriguez, Justine Henin's former coach. The hard training he's put her through in the past four months appears to be paying dividends.

Li won a WTA tournament in China before travelling to Australia, where she advanced to the semifinals at the Sydney International.

In the men's final on Sunday, Novak Djokovic will attempt to win his third consecutive Australian Open against U.S. Open champion Andy Murray. Djokovic has had the benefit of an extra day off after an easy three-set win over David Ferrer on Thursday night, while Murray needed a tough five-setter to defeat Roger Federer.

Murray has predicted a tough match with long rallies against Djokovic, the player he beat in the final at Flushing Meadows in September.

``I'm ready for the pain,'' he said. ``I hope it's a painful match, that will mean it will be a good one.''

The Bryan brothers have six Australian Open doubles titles to go along with four at the U.S. Open, two at Wimbledon and one at the French Open.

In the other final Sunday to end the year's first Grand Slam, the unseeded pairs of Jarmila Gajdosova and Matthew Ebden of Australia and the Czech Republic's Lucie Hradecka and Frantisek Cermak play for the mixed doubles championship.

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With Burakovsky out, is Chandler Stephenson the next man up?

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With Burakovsky out, is Chandler Stephenson the next man up?

With Andre Burakovsky out for the remainder of the first round at least, someone will have to replace him in the top six. Originally, it looked like Jakub Vrana was the man for the job. Based on Game 4, however, it now looks like Chandler Stephenson is the "next man up" for the Caps.

While Vrana may have top-six skill and a high ceiling, it was Stephenson who stepped into the second-line role on Thursday playing alongside Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie. Stephenson finished with two shots on goal in 17:28 of ice time. Vrana, meanwhile, played for only 6:40.

On Friday, Barry Trotz praised Stephenson's hockey IQ for allowing him to adjust to the top-six in a complementary role.

"[Stephenson's] an intelligent player," Trotz said. "He played with [Backstrom] a lot [Thursday]. If you talk with the real top-end guys, he has the ability to think like a top-end guy in terms of play with them. He’s a very intelligent player. He skates extremely well. He’s got some strength to his game. He can complement people. I think his ability to play those different roles and his hockey IQ when you play with those skill guys, he plays more of a give-and-go game than an individual game. When you play with those high skill guys, you’re able to compliment them very well."

Stephenson has spent the majority of the season on the fourth line. He was drafted as a natural center, but has played primarily wing since coming to the NHL. The ability to play both positions gives Stephenson more versatility than most forwards which Trotz credits for helping him see the game so well.

"The great thing about Chandler is he’s played multiple positions over the years. I think it’s allowed him to play a fourth-line role and with high-skill guys. At center-ice, you distribute the puck a little more.  He’s turning into a well-rounded player for us."

On the surface, having Stephenson on the fourth line over Vrana makes little sense. Vrana is highly skilled and has great speed, but he is also prone to giving up turnovers and his production can be inconsistent. Trotz has clearly put a premium on responsible play this postseason which gives Stephenson the edge.

But Game 4 was only one game. If you are going to get top-six minutes, Stephenson will be expected to produce offensively as well. Despite the limited ice time he has gotten, Vrana has shown he can have a major impact on games. In Game 1, he set up the team's only 5-on-5 goal and drew a penalty. In Game 3, he drew two penalties in less than two minutes, giving Washington a two-man advantage.

Stephenson had a fantastic game in Game 4 when he was given the chance to play in the top-six. The next step will be finding a way to have a bigger impact on the game.

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Need to Know: The Redskins week that was—All-Redskins mock, fast-fading interest in Dez

Need to Know: The Redskins week that was—All-Redskins mock, fast-fading interest in Dez

Here is what you need to know on this Saturday, April 21, five days before the 2018 NFL draft.  

The Redskins week that was

A look at some of the most popular posts and hottest topics of the week on Real Redskins and NBC Sports Washington

Should the Redskins pursue Dez Bryant? This topic was one like a meteor, very hot for a short period of time before it quickly faded out. It started to heat up as soon as the Cowboys cut Dez (about a month too late) and when it was reported that he wanted to play against Dallas twice a year it really picked up steam. But then people started to actually think and figured out that signing Bryant didn’t make much sense for the Redskins. Add to that the reports that the Redskins had no interest and would not look into signing Dez in the future and the Redskins fans quickly lost enthusiasm for the topic.

Seven-round Redskins mock draft—I think that most Redskins fans would be happy with this mock. Well, I’ll say some Redskins fans, most is a pretty strong word in this case. 

Is the draft pool deep enough for the Redskins to trade back? There is plenty of talk about the Redskins trading down in the first round to recoup the third-round pick they gave up in the Alex Smith trade. But they need to be careful. Many consider the draft to be top heavy and they may lose their chance to pick up an impact player if they trade back too far. The question then becomes one of quality vs. quantity. 

Three questions as offseason workouts get underway—There will be plenty more questions that we can ask about this team. But we don’t really know what to ask before the draft, particularly when it comes to the defensive line and running back. One the personnel settle into place we will know what we don’t know. 

Tweet of the week

On Chris Cooley’s thought that the Redskins might try to trade back and get Da’Ron Payne in the draft and the use the assets obtained to move up to get Derrius Guice. 

This is related to the questions about trading back. On paper it looks like a good idea, assuming the Redskins want Payne. We’re pretty sure they would like to have Guice but we haven’t heard as much about the Alabama defensive lineman. 

I had many reply that Guice won’t be there in the second round. It’s possible, perhaps even likely, but you just don’t know. There was zero chance that Jonathan Allen would be there at No. 17 last year, right? 

Stay up to date on the Redskins. Rich Tandler covers the team 365 days a year. Like his Facebook page, Facebook.com/TandlerNBCS and follow him on Twitter  @TandlerNBCS.

Timeline  

Days until:

—OTAs start (5/22) 31
—Training camp starts (7/26) 96
—2018 NFL season starts (9/9) 141

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