Australian Open: Azarenka d. Stephens

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Defending champion Victoria Azarenka will face Li Na for the Australian Open title after she defeated Sloane Stephens, 6-1, 6-4, but what could have been a straightforward win turned into a messy struggle and a likely media imbroglio for Vika, after the world No. 1 blew five match points on her serve and took an off-court medical timeout before breaking serve to win.

The first set was a simple affair of a nervous debutante being outplayed by a solid, competent performance. Stephens, who had not played Azarenka before, was clearly unprepared for the depth and accuracy of her opponent’s return and was on the back foot from the beginning, broken in her first service game after she blasted a forehand wide. Azarenka continuously targeted Stephens’ backhand with her own, injecting pace into the cross-court strike and giving the American no opportunity to run round for her fearsome forehand, or generally much time to set up from the back of the court. Coupled with some nervous unforced errors from Stephens, it was a quick, 33-minute set for Azarenka, who sealed it with a pin-point lob, and was swift to take a 2-0 lead in the second with some more excellent returning.

It looked to be game over for Stephens, but the tale twisted almost immediately. Serving at 2-0, 0-30 after a double fault and a neat net attack from Stephens, Azarenka appeared to wobble on her left ankle at the back of the court. Limping and grimacing between points, her movement slowed, giving Stephens a split second more breathing time. The 19-year-old started to respond much more aggressively to being pinned in the backhand corner, breaking back when she slammed one of her trademark inside-out forehand winners into the corner.

In turn, Azarenka responded by shortening the points, reluctant to retrieve from the back of the court, and also stepped up her aggression, breaking to love to lead 4-2 after Stephens backed off her shots again. Again the stage was set for Azarenka to seal the win, but she double-faulted twice and dropped the ball short for Stephens to tee off with her forehand, howling in the kind of open display of frustration we don’t often see from her these days after she blasted a backhand wide to be broken again.

Moving much better, Azarenka defended her way to another break and led 5-3, 40-15 before a flurry of unforced errors saw five match points go by. Emotional and struggling, Azarenka could only watch as Stephens landed her second fantastic winner of the game to break back. Azarenka then called for the trainer, who was quickly joined by the doctor, and took an off-court medical timeout—reportedly for a rib and knee injury—which left Stephens sitting and waiting for almost 10 minutes before the match resumed.

Serving to stay in it, Stephens threw in a double fault, then a soft second serve which got a deservedly punishing forehand return winner for 30-30. Azarenka attacked behind a good return for deuce, then successfully wrongfooted Stephens for a backhand error and her sixth match point, converted when Stephens pushed a backhand long. As an over-emotional Azarenka admitted in her post-match on-court interview, it was very nearly ‘the choke of the year’, but she will have her chance to play for a second Australian Open title. Stephens, her promise undeniable, will be left with much to ponder.

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