Victoria Azarenka made her second straight Australian Open final by defeating Sloane Stephens 6-1, 6-4, but her controversial use of a 10-minute medical timeout before Stephens was to serve to stay in the match has everyone talking.
After breaking to go ahead 5-3 in the second set, Azarenka served for the match and choked. And choked. And choked. She earned five match points and squandered five match points with nervous groundstrokes, particularly from her forehand. She grew more and more frustrated with each missed opportunity, swatting at balls angrily, letting loose ear-piercing shrieks and exhibiting the worst body language we've seen from her in quite some time. Stephens eventually broke her serve. That's when things got complicated.
With Stephens about to serve to stay in the match after the changeover, Azarenka called a medical timeout that lasted 10 minutes off court and allowed her to regroup. There was no official word at the time as to the medical reasons for her call to the doctor, though she was seen pointing to her chest during the evaluation period. After the 10-minute break, during which Stephens just sat at her bench, Azarenka came out and promptly broke for the win.
Asked after the match why she needed the medical timeout, this was Azarenka's response:
"Well I almost did the choke of the year right now. At 5-3 having so many chances, couldn't close it out. I'm glad I could just turn it around. I just felt a little bit overwhelmed realizing that I'm one step from the final and nerves got into me for sure."
Choke? Overwhelmed? Nerves? I'm not sure any of those constitute illnesses that justify a medical timeout. In fact, not too many people did. Here's how former players, commentators and pundits reacted to this perceived piece of gamesmanship:
Interviewed by Tom Rinaldi for ESPN, Azarenka said she couldn't breathe.
"That game, I don't know, I had chest pain. It was like getting a heart attack or something out there. I just needed to make sure it was okay because I really couldn't breathe."
Stephens said the break didn't put her off, though it can't be denied that she came out flat in that final service game. Stephens, who shares the same agent as Azarenka, dismissed the incident but said she planned to talk to Azarenka about it. Oh boy. The American was asked if she thought players were abusing the medical timeout system.
"No, I don't think so. Like, there's a certain thing in the locker room that tells you like if you take more than six a year or something that they'll start charging you. That's a good rule. But the whole time I've been on the WTA Tour I've never had a medical timeout, so I don't know how it feels. I don't know what they do. I don't even know what you say. Honestly, I don't even know how you would call the trainer to the court."
Stephens' coach, David Nainkin thought otherwise. "I thought it was very unfair — cheating within the rules," he 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."
After she had some time to gather her thoughts and, perhaps, realize there was a tsunami size wave of criticism coming her way, Azarenka told reporters in a later press conference that the medical timeout was for her rib and back and that she regrets not taking it earlier.
"I had been struggling a little bit throughout the whole match, from the second set, my back," she said. "And it just kept getting worse. I should have, you know, called the trainer a little bit earlier before that when I got to the point that I couldn't really breathe and had to go off court. So there was a little bit of my bad. But just a rib got locked and kept getting worse. I had to have it adjusted. I really had to go and take that medical timeout."
Azarenka didn't violate any clear-cut rule. She was within her rights to call a medical timeout if she felt short of breathing or was suffering from some injury that required medical treatment. But as is so often the case in tennis, it's not about what's written in the rulebook but "the spirit of the rule." Calling a medical timeout because you got nervous? Laughable. Calling it to disrupt the rhythm of a match that's slipping away from you? Bush league. Calling one to ice a rookie opponent before she's set to serve to stay in the match? The stuff of juniors. Certainly not becoming of the world No. 1.
Yet we have to stop and think of the risk of the alternative. Here, given Azarenka's response to questions about the medical timeout after the match it seems fairly clear that she didn't have an injury. She had shortness of breath. I can sit here and speculate and say that shortness of breath was the result of her choking away five match points and panicking, but what if it wasn't? What if it was a legitimate medical illness? Think of the liability involved if a player ignores those symptoms and collapses on court, as Azarenka did at the 2010 U.S. Open.
Azarenka will get blasted for this. She deserves it. It was a tough situation, but I've seen plenty of matches where a struggling opponent will suck up their injury for the remainder of the set and then, if they lose that set, call the trainer. Perhaps that's an idiotically noble thing, but players earn respect in the locker room for those moves. Azarenka may have earned a free pass this time if she didn't have a history of players questioning her ill-timed injuries, whether it's Agnieszka Radwanksa saying Azarenka's questionable injuries were "not a good image for women's tennis" or Maria Sharapova's subtle but constant harping on her penchant for over-exaggerating injuries. The fact is, Azarenka has never earned the benefit of the doubt when it comes to her claims about her health. This was just one more incident that adds fuel to the fire.