Friday 23 March 2018

Tennis: Azarenka denies foul play in time-out furore

Victoria Azarenka shakes hands with Sloane Stephens after defeating her in their women's singles semi-final
Victoria Azarenka shakes hands with Sloane Stephens after defeating her in their women's singles semi-final

Simon Briggs

Victoria Azarenka should have been cock-a-hoop after beating Sloane Stephens in straight sets. There was a double reward – not only did she claim a place in tomorrow's Australian Open final against Li Na, but she simultaneously retained her world No 1 status.

Yet Azarenka was anything but chipper last night. Instead, she found herself on the defensive over a gamesmanship row. The issue was not just the nine-minute medical time-out that she took at a pivotal moment deep in the second set. It was the fact that Azarenka's first response, when she spoke to TV interviewers after the match, was to say: "I had to take a little time to calm down."

Nerves, of course, are not an acceptable justification for a medical timeout. If you go off court for anything other than illness or musculoskeletal injury, you could be defaulted by the match referee. Which may explain why, by the time Azarenka came into the press conference an hour and a half later, she was explaining herself in a very different way.

"I had been struggling a little bit with my back," she explained this time. "It got to the point that I couldn't really breathe and had to go off court. A rib got locked and kept getting worse. I had to have it adjusted. I really had to go and take that medical time-out."

What was the real story here? The one thing that makes Azarenka's account vaguely credible was that she had already had some medical treatment 10 minutes earlier. The trainer had come out and twisted her upper torso, just as you might have expected him to do in response to a back problem.

The context of the next time-out was altogether different. This time Azarenka had just blown five match points in a panicky and slipshod attempt to serve out the match at 6-1, 5-3. Her composure had evaporated.

Then there was the awkward detail of her first comments after the match – which ended when she broke Stephens' serve in the first game after the controversial time-out. Channel 7's Sam Smith opened up the on-court interview by asking about her physical problems, to which Azarenka replied:

"I almost did the choke of the year right now. I had so many chances, but couldn't close it out. I felt a bit overwhelmed." Her comments prompted a wave of criticism from TV commentators. The most outspoken was Patrick McEnroe, who described the time-out as an "absolute travesty."

So, it was not surprising that Azarenka went on to adjust her story for her later interviews with newspaper and radio reporters.


"I really just misunderstood what she asked me," she said of Smith. "I think you cannot really judge by a few words. The situation had to be explained. I'm glad I'm here doing that."

For her part, Stephens was highly gracious about the unexpected interruption, saying that it had not affected the result of the match. Stephens' coach, David Nainkin, was far more outspoken. "I thought it was very unfair – cheating within the rules," he said.

In the other semi-final, China's Li Na pulled off an unexpected win over Maria Sharapova, the form player of the tournament, 6-2 6-2. Li made it to the final here two years ago, only to lose to Kim Clijsters in three sets.

Tomorrow's final is a hard one to call. Azarenka has looked vulnerable mentally throughout this tournament, while Li, once known for cracking under pressure, has had a new sense of serenity about her. We can expect the crowd to lean heavily in Li's direction after yesterday's shemozzle.

Meanwhile, Novak Djokovic is one win away from his third successive Australian title after demolishing David Ferrer with a display that he described as "among the best of my career."

Djokovic seems only to have gained inspiration from his narrow escape against Stan Wawrinka and yesterday he switched into his most ruthless, free-swinging mode to dispatch Ferrer in just 89 minutes, 6-2 6-2 6-1 to book a date with the winner of this morning's semi-final between Andy Murray and Roger Federer. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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