The first one is usually the sweetest but for Victoria Azarenka, the feelings she experienced after winning Grand Slam title No 2 will surely take some beating.

After a fortnight in which she was dogged by controversy at every turn, the tears at the end of her 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 triumph over Li Na of China were real and free-flowing. "This one is way more emotional," the Belarusian said. "It's going to be extra special for me, for sure."

It is hard to think of a more drama-filled build-up to a women's final here after a semi-final win over American teenager Sloane Stephens in which Azarenka trod a fine line between the rules and gamesmanship.

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A 10-minute medical timeout, when Stephens was serving to stay in the match in the second set, was bad enough, but when she compounded matters by claiming she had been suffering a panic attack rather than a genuine injury, she caused herself more trouble.

Her attempts to explain herself later in press conferences – she said she had a "locked rib" – fell flat and one newspaper here had billed the final as "Melbourne against Victoria", promising to give the world No 1 a rough time when she came out for the final.

Having come out on to court listening to music on her headphones, as she often does, there were a few jeers as she was introduced to the Melbourne crowd but not as many as feared.

"I was expecting a way worse reception, to be honest," she said. "What can you do? You just have to go out there and try to play tennis. That's what it was all about. It's the final of the Australian Open. I was there to play."

Azarenka said she had learned a lot about herself from the events of the past few days. "What happened with Sloane came out as a big deal, but it wasn't a big deal on the court," she said. "I just try to take the best things out of what happened and move forward.

"There were a lot of emotional things in the tournament. Two weeks is very difficult to keep your cool. But I think the world now knows I'm an emotional player."

The match itself was full of drama but for once it surrounded Azarenka's opponent as Li twice fell and suffered injuries, first to her left ankle in the second set and then when she banged her head on the court early in the third set.

The former French Open champion, appearing in her second Australian Open final, had hammered Maria Sharapova in the semi-finals and, despite a series of errors from both players, she was the better player in the first set as she moved ahead.

But gradually, Azarenka relaxed and began to find her range on her groundstrokes, making Li run even more and then attacking the second serve when she could.

At 3-1 in the second set, Li fell and initially it looked bad but after having her ankle strapped she was able to resume. Her movement was only marginally affected, and when she broke back for 4-4, she was two games from a second Grand Slam title only for Azarenka to break and then capture the second set to level the match.

Li's second tumble, this time causing her to bang her head, came when she led 2-1 in the deciding set and for a couple of seconds, she didn't know where she was.

"I was a little bit worried when I fell down and my head hit the floor because for two seconds I couldn't really see anything," she said. "It was totally black. So when the physio came, she was saying: 'focus on my finger'. I started laughing. I was thinking, this is a tennis court, not a hospital."

Li had a chance to break for a 3-1 lead, but Azarenka saved it and then maintained her concentration, breaking in the following game herself and again in the ninth to clinch victory.