Azarenka takes her time before closing deal

Fri, Jan 25, 2013, 00:00

TENNIS:It will be Li Na versus Victoria Azarenka in the women’s final at the Australian Open, and although Li’s straight-set victory over Maria Sharapova in their semi-final yesterday brooked no argument, the same could not be said for Azarenka’s straight-set victory over the 19-year-old American Sloane Stephens.

While the sixth-seeded Li romped 6-2, 6-2, playing one of the finest and most composed big matches of her career, the top-seeded Azarenka struggled to keep her cool on a steamy day in Melbourne, when temperatures hit 97 degrees.

Serving for the match against Stephens at 5-3 in the second set, she failed to convert on five match points and was eventually broken when Stephens slapped a forehand winner down the line.

When Azarenka walked to her seat for the changeover, she wrapped a towel stuffed with ice around her neck and was examined by a trainer and physician.

She eventually left the court for further treatment, which meant Stephens, in her first Grand Slam semi-final, was left waiting as she was about to serve to stay in the match.

Azarenka returned to the court six minutes later, and the overall break in play was close to 10 minutes. The time allotted on a normal changeover is 90 seconds.

Tournament favourite

Stephens, who had upset tournament favourite Serena Williams in the quarter-finals, proceeded to lose her serve and the match 6-1, 6-4.

It was not immediately clear why Azarenka required treatment. Although medical timeouts are permitted by the rules at that stage of a match, the timing of her break in play was immediately questioned by many who viewed it as potential gamesmanship.

“An absolute travesty,” said Patrick McEnroe, the ESPN analyst who is also head of the US Tennis Association’s player development programme that has helped to back Stephens.

In her post-match interview, Azarenka, the defending champion, did not immediately explain if she was suffering from a legitimate injury or medical condition. But she made it clear she had been distraught.

She was asked why she had gone off court.

“Well, I almost did the choke of the year right now at 5-3, having so many chances I couldn’t close it out. I just felt a little bit overwhelmed. I realised I’m one step away from the final and nerves got into me for sure.”

Asked if she was happy, Azarenka responded: “Until 5-3, yes, very happy. After that, it wasn’t my best, but it’s important to overcome this little bit of a struggle and win the match. I’m definitely happy to be in the final. I just love to play here, and I just couldn’t lose. That’s why I was so upset.”

Stephens said she did not believe the long break had an impact on the outcome.

“It didn’t go my way, but I wouldn’t say at all that her, what happened, affected the match,” Stephens said.

That Li could beat the second-seeded Sharapova was no great surprise; she was a finalist here in 2011. But it was definitely a surprise that she could beat Sharapova as comprehensively as she did.

Sharapova had lost just nine games in five matches heading into the semi-final. Mischievous number crunchers were calculating her earnings per minute of court time: well over $1,000.

Second serve

But Li will end up with the bigger pay cheque in Melbourne after feasting on Sharapova’s second serve and winning a clear majority of their physical baseline rallies.

Asked if her lack of a major test in the earlier rounds might have played a role in her minor-key performance, Sharapova demurred.

“I can’t think of it that way; I certainly can’t use that as an excuse,” she said. “When I go into any match, I’m trying to win with the best score line I can. That’s my goal.

“Today I felt like I had my fair share of opportunities. It’s not like they weren’t there. I just couldn’t take them today.”

Sharapova’s average second-serve speed was a respectable 94 mph but she won just six of 24 points with it as Li broke her serve seven times. She was also particularly effective in stretching the 6ft 2in Sharapova wide to her forehand with sliced serves and well-struck crosscourt forehands of her own.

Sharapova’s forehand, when she is on balance, is a major weapon but it is less effective on the run. “She was aggressive,” Sharapova said. “She was taking the first ball and doing something with it, and when I was trying to, I was making too many unforced errors.”

An encore

Sharapova still holds an 8-5 record over Li and won all three of their matches in 2012 when Li struggled to produce an encore to her remarkable 2011 season, when she reached the final at the Australian Open and then became the first Chinese player to win a Grand Slam singles title at the French Open.

But Li appears to be regaining momentum in 2013, six months after she and her husband, Jiang Shan, made the mutual decision to demote Jiang from coach back to husband and to hire Carlos Rodriguez.

For years, diminutive Argentine-born coach Rodriguez was Justine Henin’s mentor and tactician in chief.

He has been pushing Li particularly hard in training, and Li, who likes a joke, turned toward Rodriguez and the rest of her team during her post-match interview and gave a new directive. “You don’t need to push me anymore,” she said. “I will push me.”

New York Times

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