Victorious Azarenka denies gamesmanship
Tennis:Victoria Azarenka insisted the need for a medical time-out late in her Australian Open semi-final win over Sloane Stephens was genuine, and not an act of gamesmanship.
Defending champion Azarenka headed to the locker room for attention immediately after squandering five match points in trying to serve out the match against her 19-year-old opponent. She returned 10 minutes later to win the next game and complete a 6-1 6-4 win.
In her post-match press conference, she explained she was suffering from a locked rib which left her struggling to breathe.
Yet in the on-court interview straight after her victory, she made no mention of the injury and hinted she had simply required time to calm her nerves.
When asked why she had to leave the court, she said: “I almost did the choke of the year. At 5-3 and having so many chances I couldn’t close it out.
“I felt a little bit overwhelmed and, realising I was one step away, nerves got into me.”
The world number one emerged to face the media an hour later and explained she had misunderstood the question put to her by Sam Smith, the former British Fed Cup player who now works for host broadcaster Channel Seven.
She said: “I did not understand what she asked me because the question was about how I had a few difficulties and why I went off.
“I completely thought of a different thing, why I couldn’t close out the match, that I had a few difficulties.
“I understand the whole situation right now but it was just a simple misunderstanding of a question. I guess that’s my bad.”
Asked if she understood why people may perceive it as gamesmanship, she added: “I don’t because it was necessary.”
Azarenka claimed the rib injury flared up at 4-2 in the second set and admitted she should have asked for medical assistance before she did.
“I had been struggling a little bit throughout the whole match, from the second set, and it just kept getting worse,” she said.
“I should have called the trainer a little bit earlier before I got to the point that I couldn’t really breathe.
“I understand the point of people maybe not understanding what I said and me not understanding what I had been asked. So I’m glad I can make everything clear.”
The controversy was the key talking point from a strange match which Azarenka dominated for more than a set before Stephens gradually grew in belief to make it a contest.
Stephens, who stunned Serena Williams yesterday, was nervy early on in her first Grand Slam semi-final and soon found herself a set and 2-0 down before launching a comeback after Azarenka appeared to hurt her left knee.
She got it back to 2-2 only for Azarenka to embark on a run of nine successive points which took her to 4-2. But the world number one, who needs to beat Li Na on Saturday to retain that ranking, then seemed to get tight.
She tossed away the advantage with an error-ridden game which included two double-faults and a mis-timed backhand and was fortunate Stephens returned the favour to hand her a 5-3 advantage and the chance to serve for the match.
That was when the drama started. Azarenka, by now looking increasingly tetchy, failed to close it out on five opportunities as Stephens refused to go away. And when the teenager broke the tension was rising.
The Belarussian then left the arena having called the trainer and the doctor and remained off court for an extended period, leaving Stephens in her chair.
When she returned she had seemingly overcome her injury problem and promptly claimed the next game to go through in one hour and 41 minutes.
The talking point may have come from the second semi-final but the most eye-catching performance came earlier as Li brushed aside Maria Sharapova with a wonderful display to reach her second Melbourne final.
Sharapova had broken a tournament record in conceding just nine games in reaching the last four but she was overwhelmed by the Chinese whose heavy-hitting, high-risk game reaped maximum reward.
In the face of blazing winners from all angles, Sharapova, the second seed, had no answer as Li romped to a 6-2 6-2 triumph.
“I always play well here,” observed Li after a 93-minute masterclass.
The 2011 runner-up broke three times in the first set and twice more in the second with Sharapova powerless to respond.