Victoria Azarenka ended Li Na’s unbeaten two-year run at the Sydney International with a fighting three-set victory in the final yesterday.
The Belarussian third seed claimed her ninth career WTA title with a 6-2, 1-6, 6-3 victory over the fourth-seeded Chinese star in 1 hour, 56 minutes on Ken Rosewall Arena.
French Open champion Li was on a nine-match winning run in Sydney after beating Kim Clijsters in last year’s final, but was edged out by Azarenka, who ranks third in the world behind Caroline Wozniacki and Petra Kvitova.
It capped a big week for 22-year-old Azarenka, with victories over Jelena Jankovic, Marion Bartoli, Agnieszka Radwanska and Li ahead of Monday’s Australian Open in Melbourne.
Despite her victory, Azarenka will remain at world No. 3, while Li is expected to drop one place to sixth behind Australian Samantha Stosur when the next rankings are released on Monday.
Azarenka is among six players with a chance of reaching the top spot depending on results at the year’s opening Grand Slam tournament in Melbourne.
In three trips to Australia, Li has compiled a 21-4 record, highlighted by a semi-final appearance at the 2010 Australian Open, her runner-up finish to Clijsters at last year’s Open, her Sydney win last year and the run to this week’s final.
Li heads to Melbourne in form after a dip in the second half of last year following her landmark French Open success, which saw her become the first Asian to win a Grand Slam title.
Li, who only won seven matches in the second half of last year, said she was back in the form she had enjoyed prior to Wimbledon, where she bowed out to Germany’s Sabine Lisicki in the second round.
Azarenka broke Li’s service three times to storm through the opening set of yesterday’s final in 34 minutes, but encountered greater resistance in the second set, when Li called her coach and husband Jiang Shan to the court and her play tightened up significantly.
She broke Azarenka’s serve twice in the fourth and sixth games and leveled the match when the Belarussian pushed a backhand wide.
Both players shared service breaks at the start of the final set, but when Li’s serve was broken in the eighth game, Azarenka served out for the championship, winning on her second match point.
In the men’s singles, Journeymen Jarkko Nieminen and Julien Benneteau earned themselves a rare ATP title shot after beating higher-ranked semi-final opponents yesterday.
Finland’s Nieminen, 30, needed a marathon 26-point tiebreaker before prevailing over Uzbekistan’s 67th-ranked Denis Istomin 7-6 (14/12), 6-3 in 1 hour, 44 minutes to reach his 12th career ATP final today.
French world No. 49 Benneteau required six match points and had to win through a see-sawing 14-minute final game before seeing off Cypriot Marcos Baghdatis 6-4, 6-4 in almost two hours.
Left-hander Nieminen, ranked 77, has only won one title — in Auckland six years ago — and was a beaten Sydney finalist in 2009 against David Nalbandian.
He is bidding to become the first qualifier to win the tournament since South Korea’s Lee Hyung-taik claimed the title nine years ago.
“I really enjoyed that moment being in the finals again now a second time here,” Nieminen said. “It’s just great that I start the year like this. I struggled in the beginning of the last year, and this is a real great confidence boost for me.”