Azarenka win comes with controversy
MELBOURNE, Australia -- Victoria Azarenka had reason to panic. She'd just squandered five match points on her serve at 5-3 in the second set, giving teenage sensation Sloane Stevens a slender rope to climb back into their Australian Open semifinal match.
The bigger question is whether Azarenka had a legitimate medical reason to leave the court while Stephens cooled her heels, hoping to make more inroads. Azarenka was evaluated first on court and then escorted off, delaying play for close to 10 minutes. Tournament officials issued word that Azarenka had requested treatment for separate left knee and rib ailments. Under the rules, two different injuries would enable a player to take two consecutive three-minute breaks -- although Azarenka later said she'd requested only one.
When Azarenka returned, she finished off Stephens -- whose serve abandoned her Thursday -- in quick fashion for a 6-1, 6-4 win and a chance to defend her Aussie title. But in an on-court interview shortly afterward, she made no mention of the physical problems cited as the rationale for the interlude.
"I almost did the choke of the year,'' a quavery-voiced Azarenka told Australian television. She left to muted applause from the crowd. Moments later, she told ESPN's Tom Rinaldi she had chest pain and couldn't breathe.
For some, what Azarenka did seemed like the dodge of the year, or at least this young season.
"This injury timeout rule needs to be thoroughly re-examined,'' ESPN analyst Patrick McEnroe said. "Leaving the court for any amount of time because of nerves is unacceptable.''
ESPN's Mary Joe Fernandez said she wished she'd been a fly on the wall to hear what Azarenka actually told the tournament doctor, but said what transpired looked like gamesmanship from her vantage point.
"You don't take an injury timeout for getting nervous,'' Fernandez said. "As a spectator, it looked like she was taking the time to regroup, catch her breath and try to settle down and get to a major final."
Yet Azarenka's comments in the immediate aftermath also indicated she didn't think she'd done anything wrong, Fernandez noted. "And ultimately, it was the tournament that allowed her to do it.''
The only mistake Azarenka would admit to was not calling the trainer when she said her back began to hurt in the second set.
"It was necessary thing for me to do,'' she said. "I just regret that I didn't take it earlier. ... It got to the point that it was pretty much impossible for me to breathe and to play.
"The timing, yeah, it was my bad. The game before that, when I lost my service game, it kept getting worse. I thought I would have to play through it and keep calm. But it just got worse. You know, I had to do it."
Azarenka said she had to "unlock my rib, which was causing my back problem. ... The trainer said, 'We have to go off court to treat that.' I just didn't really want to take off my dress on the court.'' She added that she misinterpreted the questions about her physical issues in her immediate postmatch interviews.
"You know what, I feel like it had to be explained, the situation," she said. "I understand the point of people maybe not understanding what I said; me not understanding what I've been asked. So I'm just glad that I'm here, you know, to make everything clear, and that's it.''
Whatever the questions raised of Azarenka's hiatus, she is on to a final against China's sixth-seeded Li Na, whose win was as straightforward as Azarenka's was theatrical. Li did unto Maria Sharapova as Sharapova had done unto others throughout this tournament, steamrolling her 6-2, 6-2.
It's rare that Sharapova is out of a match as soon as it starts. She was in defensive mode from the outset and characteristically didn't stop slugging but never looked comfortable.
Sharapova had lost only two service games and nine total en route to the semifinal, but Li cracked the code in the opening game of the match.
The 30-year-old from Wuhan, China, methodically preyed on Sharapova's second serve, winning 80 percent of the points played off it. Li's opponents have been known to get back into matches by waiting for her forehand to wobble, but that never happened -- in fact, Li showed some nifty spin from that side, another grace note courtesy of coach Carlos Rodriguez.
And Sharapova, as she readily admitted in her postmatch news conference, "didn't make [Li] think about anything.''
"She's playing really confident tennis,'' said Sharapova, who will slide down a notch in the rankings to world No. 3 next week. "I thought she played really well, probably the best she's played against me.''
Li has a balanced game but couldn't always back it up with sustained focus. Yet when she began working with Justine Henin's former coach, Rodriguez, in the middle of the 2012 season, he decided the path to better consistency was through building better legs.
Li has quipped several times that Rodriguez's rigorous regime -- four to six hours daily, evenly divided between hitting and hitting the gym -- made her doubt both his sanity and her own for submitting to it. But it's working.
"Start[ing] this year, I try to cool down on the court,'' Li said. "Like Hollywood, you know. You don't have to show opponent what are you thinking. A little bit like Hollywood, but not real.''
The Azarenka-Stephens match began in the least cinematic way possible. Stephens was just 24 hours removed from an exhilarating upset of fellow American, five-time champion and third seed Serena Williams that also was disrupted by injury but far more competitive. The teenager's energy level appeared far lower Thursday and her serve, normally so effective, was broken by Azarenka in all but two games.
Stephens warmed up amid beastly hot conditions in the second set, breaking Azarenka's serve three times, flashing her authoritative forehand and winning some points at net. She hung in on defense as both Azarenka's forehand and her composure melted down when she served for the match. But despite Azarenka's late stumbling, she was the less error-prone player overall and Stephens downplayed any pivotal significance of the timeout.
"I just did everything I could and came up a little bit short,'' said the 19-year-old Stephens, who said she and Azarenka are "pretty good friends" and noted they share the same agent. "I mean, I've had in the last match, the match before, medical breaks, go to the bathroom, the whole showdown. It was just something else, but it didn't affect anything, I don't think.
"I mean, when you take a medical break or timeout, obviously it's for a reason. ... Like if it was one of my friends, I would say, 'Oh, my god, that sounds like a PP, which is a personal problem.' Other than that, it's just unfortunate.''