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.
Azarenka said her tournament had been “a progress” and reflecting her more light-hearted approach to the game, joked that her fall in the second set was the first time she had ever had her legs do a “full split”.
“Overall, I think my attitude and my approach to matches, to tournaments, has changed,” she told reporters.
“That’s more satisfying for me. I feel that I’m very honest with myself on my effort and I’m working really hard.
“I want to be realistic and I want to do better ... I just need to go there step by step.”
Azarenka may take heart that it took an inspired performance by last year’s finalist Cibulkova to beat her, the pint-sized 10th seed swinging at everything and rarely missing.
“I always had tough matches against Vika,” said Cibulkova, who will play the winner of top seed Serena Williams and Spaniard Garbine Muguruza.
“The tennis she’s playing goes well with my tennis. But today I would say it was the best match we ever played.
“Today I was not thinking about the score, I was just going for it. When I was up I was going for it even more.”
Reporting by Ian Ransom; Editing by Peter Rutherford