A day after bursting upon the world tennis stage, Sloane Stephens gassed out. The zest and exuberance that marked her performance in beating Serena Williams to advance to the semifinals of the Australian Open was there only sparingly against No. 1 Victoria Azarenka Thursday morning. And that cost her.
It also hurt significantly that Stephens just was not as sharp in losing 6-1, 6-4 to Azarenka, who faces China’s La Ni for the women’s title on Saturday. Ni upset heavily favored Maria Sharapova, 6-2, 6-2, to advance.
Stephens opened the match as if she was prepared to get there, too. She was up 40-15 in the first game, but ended up losing her serve. It was a telling omen of her undoing: She only held serve once in each of the two sets.
Still, after being wiped out in the first set and down 0-2 in the second, Stephens found some of her game to get back in it. The fight in her was palpable, but the execution was just not there during her service games.
Later in the set, in a game in which Azerenka had five match points, Stephens held it together, volleying beautifully from the baseline to stave off elimination and gain service trailing 4-5 in the second set.
It was then that Azerenka took a medical timeout after a few minutes of physician attention courtside. She left the court for a 10-minute medical break for her rib and left knee injuries – and anxiety concerns. When play resumed, she won the game by breaking Stephens’ serve yet again.
“Almost did the choke of the year,” Azarenka said. “I couldn’t close it out. Just felt a little bit overwhelmed. Nerves got into me … I couldn’t breathe. I had chest pains. It was like I was getting a heart attack.”
The break seemed interminable, during which time Stephens just sat court side, emotionless.
“After that it wasn’t my best,” Azarenka said, “but it’s important to overcome this little bit of a struggle and win the match.”
The break also was suspicious. Azarenka had not indicated any back issues prior to calling over the medical staff after Stephens saved five match points to win the game and pull to 4-5.
Stephens, for her part, took the high road. She said the timing of the medical break didn’t impact the match or her play. She withstood a shorter break the day before when back spasms forced Williams to the locker room for a short break.
“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. It’s happened to my opponents before. I’ve had in the last match, the match before, medical breaks, go to the bathroom, the whole slowdown. But it didn’t affect anything, I don’t think. I know I lost the next game but I wouldn’t say that’s because of the medical timeout.”