Frozen Out

Thursday, January 24, 2013 /by

MELBOURNE—For someone who’s just 19 and has never won a pro tourmament, Sloane Stephens has had quite an effect on the world’s best players this week. First, Serena Williams, after largely controlling the first two sets against her in their quarterfinal, was hobbled by ankle and back injuries. Today, in the semifinals, No. 1-ranked Victoria Azarenka, after dominating the first set, tweaked her leg and for a few games struggled to run.

That was nothing compared to what Azarenka appeared to do to her brain a few games later. Serving for the match at 5-3 and seemingly ready to end the teenager’s dream run here, Vika suffered a tennis version of a panic attack. She reached match point five times, only to lose them all—three on easy errors—before losing her serve. 

Vika called the doctor and trainer to her chair. After pointing to her chest and stretching her upper body, she was taken off court for a 10-minute medical timeout. For the second straight day, Stephens was left alone with her thoughts on court. She must have felt like she was learning a lot about high-level tennis, both the good and the dubious.

Today Sloane learned what it’s like to be iced, but she couldn’t do anything about it. Azarenka returned to the court a much calmer woman and broke the American to reach her second straight final here. At first, Azarenka said she took the timeout because she was “overwhelmed”; later she said she had misunderstood the question and attributed the break to a “locked rib” that had been causing pain in her back and had been getting worse through the set, making her feel panicked. Vika admitted that she should have called for the trainer earlier—“that was my bad,” she said.

Stephens, as she did when asked about Bojana Jovanovski’s grunting earlier in the week, waved it off afterward. “It didn’t affect anything, I don’t think,” she said. “If it was one of my friends, I would say, ‘Oh my God, that sounds like a PP, which is a ‘personal problem.’” 

Despite the discrepancy in her explanations, Azarenka did appear to have a physical issue at 4-5—only she knows for sure, but I don't think she made her ailments up after the fact. She had also been struggling at times to get pace on her first serve. At the same time, that doesn’t explain the errors at match point, or why she first said she was overwhelmed. Azarenka had not only panicked, she had choked, and the time-out helped calm her down as much as it helped her back feel better. While she won the match 6-1, 6-4, Vika’s image, which she has worked to improve, took a hit. Rarely has a semifinal victory at a Grand Slam been greeted with such tepid applause. 

(It was also unclear whether Azarenka had taken one or two medical timeouts at 4-5—she said it was one, but it was reported that she had taken a separate one for her knee. Vika's own history doesn't make it easier to judge. She's been questioned about her retirements in the past, but she also once passed out on court at the U.S. Open, which would make anyone panicky.)

The irony is that, 20 minutes earlier, the story of the match in my mind had been Azarenka’s composure, both in shrugging off her leg problem and retaking the lead in the second set after Stephens had broken her serve. From the start, Azarenka played a heady match. She had clearly decided to work over Stephens’ backhand, and the high-bouncing balls she sent to that side backed Sloane up and took her power away. For most of the match, Vika gave Stephens a lesson in how to build points and play intelligent attacking tennis.

Stephens made 42 unforced errors and couldn’t take advantage of Azarenka’s struggles the way she did Serena’s yesterday. Her court position and sporadic passivity are still issues to address. If she learned one thing from the way Azarenka played today, it should be the necessity of relentlessness.

Sloane took the defeat with a subdued smile, and she finished her last press conference in Oz with a look on the bright side. 

“I’m obviously coming out of the Australian summer with amazing momentum,” she said, “knowing I can pretty much hang in there with anybody and even beat some of the best players.”

Should Sloane have been angry at Vika for taking that timeout? It might have helped her play better in the final game. Surely Serena would have been out for blood if Azarenka had done the same thing to her, and she probably would have gotten it. Maybe as her ranking and her status rise, Stephens won’t feel the need to be so conciliatory toward her higher-ranked opponents. Or maybe she’s already really good at saying the right things. (In her presser today, Stephens said, “I love Vika and we share the same agent.”)

Whatever her real feelings were, Sloane brought a welcome sense of perspective on a day when everyone else was losing their heads. Azarenka had blundered, and she was thoroughly grilled for it. As Vika herself said, that was the way it had to be, and she knew it was coming. But as she sat alone at the bottom of the interview room looking up at her interlocutors, I began to feel bad for her.

Amidst all of that, it was nice to see Sloane’s smile. Even if it was hiding other thoughts, on the outside it told us, “This is tennis, dudes, this is supposed to be fun.”

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