Victoria Azarenka — Getty ImagesTennis is a game of strategy. Like chess, you hit a shot here or there not to actually win the point, but set yourself up a few plays later to win the point. It's a mind game against your opponent that can bring out the best and worst in players that are struggling against their foes and against themselves.
But we don't need this. Not what Victoria Azarenka did on Thursday at the Australian Open.
Azarenka is the No. 1 player in the world. She won the 2012 Australian Open for her only Grand Slam title, and has gone through an almost Andy Murray-like turnaround in her career to become the player she is today. She's incredibly solid and intimidating to play and has plenty of talent to get past opponents no matter how talented they are. But her tactics against American Sloane Stephens in the semifinals just seemed dirty.
Azarenka won the first set against Stephens handily on Thursday, beating the budding star 6-1 and putting her just a single set away from her second straight Aussie Open final. Her game looked sharp and Sloane looked drained and it seemed the effects of beating someone like Serena Williams might weight down the 19-year-old and keep her out of her first ever Grand Slam finals.
But Stephens never quit. After being broke in the second game of the second set, the young American held tough and kept fighting as Azarenka was falling apart. The forehand went missing for the top ranked player and the jitters were setting in just like they had to Sam Stosur last week in Melbourne. Azarenka was frustrated, yelling when she missed shots and slamming balls when she lost games. It wasn't the best look for Azarenka but it was understandable considering the pressure.
And then came the move that everyone is talking about. Azarenka, who had five match points lost because she couldn't seem to figure out how to close this one out, left the court up 5-4 with Stephens set to serve. An injury timeout, sure, but Azarenka was gone for 10 minutes while Stephens just sat in her chair, eyes fixed on a point straight in front of her, wondering why for the second match in a row her opponent was inside while she was just waiting.
And she waited, and waited, and waited, and finally, Azarenka came out. The match ended there with Azarenka taking the second set, but it was the quotes after that didn't add up. Officially Azarenka went with the trainers inside because of a chest and back injury, but her first quotes immediately showed that wasn't true.
“I couldn’t breathe, you know,’’ Azarenka said on court after the win. “That game, you know, I just had chest pain, like getting a heart attack or something out there. I just needed to make sure it’s okay cause I really couldn’t breathe.’’
Basically Azarenka admitted that she left the court because she was falling apart mentally and needed a minute to recoup. This would be the equivalent of a quarterback driving down the field in the AFC Championship, tied game, and calling a 10 minute timeout because he wasn't sure he could handle the moment.
"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.''
Stephens was as impressive after the match as she was in the run up to this weird ending to her Australian Open. Sure, she looked annoyed, but she answered questions, saying she "loves Vika" and that she was sure "we'll talk."
The fact of this semifinals match is that Stephens probably wasn't going to win. She got pummeled in the first set and while she kept fighting back in the second, she didn't have a ton of things to build on that would suggest she'd turn it on in the third set and overtake the top seed to make the finals. But she still deserved a chance to go at a player that was struggling with the internal fight that is tennis.
Azarenka was getting to the point that she was beating herself and instead of sitting on the court and taking the punches, she retreated to the shadows in hope that the tennis goblins would go away.
Stephens was a fan favorite when she beat Williams to advance to the semifinals, but I think she might have earned even more fans after this match that seemed to be taken away from her.
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