Australia finally warms to beaten Azarenka
By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Victoria Azarenka's grand slam comeback from an injury-plagued season ran into a brick wall in the form of feisty Slovak Dominika Cibulkova on Monday, but the former champion leaves Melbourne Park having finally won the affections of the hosts.
Azarenka reigned supreme at the Australian Open from 2012-13, but while she earned their respect she never won over local crowds.
They mocked her loud grunting in her run to the 2012 title and openly jeered her the year after when she took a controversial medical time-out during her semi-final against American Sloane Stephens after blowing match points.
With accusations of gamesmanship floating around Rod Laver Arena, Azarenka endured an icy reception in that year's final against Li Na.
That frostiness followed her into her second title defense last year.
Barring their own players, Australian crowds love nothing more than a determined underdog, however, and Azarenka's return as an unseeded battler, this time without American recording artist Redfoo on her arm, garnered much sympathy.
As the year's first grand slam got underway, Azarenka repeatedly professed how much she loved Australia, the nation of her greatest success, and for once the feeling was requited as she pounded Stephens, then eighth seed Caroline Wozniacki and Barbora Zahlavova Strycova in a gutsy return to the spotlight.
Not a mock grunt was heard as the 25-year-old dug herself out of a slump against Cibulkova and the centre court crowd was firmly in her corner to the last shot of her 6-2 3-6 6-3 defeat. Continued...