Defending Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka says she did not engage in gamesmanship during her 6-1, 6-4 semifinal victory over American teenager Sloane Stephens. After hitting unforced errors on five match points in the ninth game of the second set, Azarenka took a 10-minute medical timeout during the changeover. When she returned, she broke Stephens to clinch the match.
Immediately after the match in her courtside interview, Azarenka said, “I almost did the choke of the year. At 5-3 I had so many chances but I couldn’t close it out. I felt a little bit overwhelmed that I was close to another final.”
In a follow-up interview with ESPN a few minutes later, Azarenka described it a “panic attack.”
But at her post-match press conference, Azarenka said she had misunderstood the questions and took the timeouts -- which actually were two timeouts combined -- because of a “locked rib” that made it difficult for her to breathe.
“I had to unlock my rib, which was causing my back problem.” she said. “I had been struggling in the second set (with) my back. And it just kept getting worse. I should have called the trainer a little bit earlier before (but) when I got to the point that I couldn’t really breathe and had to go off court.”
Azarenka did admit that it was her “bad” for misunderstanding the interviewer’s questions and added that she should have taken the timeout earlier in the set.
Some broadcasters lit into Azarenka. ESPN’s Pam Shriver tweeted: “A terrible call in Kim (Clijsters)-Justine (Henin) final (in 2004) here helped usher in the challenge system. Now this injury charade of 10 minutes may change injury rule.”
Patrick McEnroe tweeted: “Absolute travesty.”
The Belarusian, who was frequently criticized early in her career for retiring and for calling the trainer too often, said her poor play did have something to with her shortness of breath.
“It had a lot to do with that, because when you cannot breathe you start to panic,” Azarenka said. “I was really panicking, not because I couldn’t convert my match point. That’s not the case. I’m experienced enough to go over those emotions. But when you cannot breathe, when something’s really blocking you, the stress that was the stress I was talking about. I just couldn’t realize what was going on with me. I couldn’t breathe; I couldn’t swing. I think it was pretty obvious that my shots were a little bit different.
“That’s I think the misunderstanding of the situation, what I said that I was stressed out and choked was not because I couldn’t finish my shot. It was just so stressing me out the pain that I had that, maybe it was overreaction, but I just really couldn’t breathe.”
It is unclear why Azarenka was not warned or penalized for taking too long with the timeouts, which under Grand Slam rules should not have taken more than six minutes combined. She could have received a warning, point, or game penalty.
“What can I do?,” she asked. “Is it my fault the doctor took that long to evaluate? I said, ‘I don’t want two medical timeouts. I only took one.”
Stephens said the medical timeout out had nothing to do with why she lost, and added: “I love Vika and we share the same agent. We actually are pretty good friends. I’m sure I’ll see her and we’ll talk about it.”
Stephens' coach, David Nainkin, was clearly unhappy.
"I thought it was very unfair — cheating within the rules," Nainkin told USA Today. "It was unsportsmanlike. I don't think you should be able to leave the court before the opponent serves for 10 minutes for whatever reason. You'd better have something pretty good. I think there's a gray area in the rule book that shoudn't be allowed. End of story."
Azarenka said she understood why people were confused and reiterated that she was not engaging in gamesmanship.
“I’m being really honest here, what I’m talking about, she said. “So I’m just glad that I’m here to make everything clear, and that’s it.”