For a moment it seemed that Sloane Stephens was heading for a replay of her previous match — losing the first set, seeing her opponent pull up at the start of the second with some sort of injury and then …
But she could not quite reproduce the full scenario of her upset against Serena Williams. Victoria Azarenka, playing like the world No. 1 for most of the match until, in her words, "I almost did the choke of the year" went through to the final by 6-1, 6-4.
The scoreline, however, tells nothing of the drama of the last two games. Stephens, who has been pushing Azarenka on several occasions without being able to win many games, broke the Belarussian for the third time in the second set after Azarenka had missed five match points.
Stephens’ hitting from the baseline had finally clicked into the rhythm that had given Serena so much trouble and Azarenka suddenly found herself struggling to handle it. She netted a backhand on the first match point; hit a forehand long on the second and so it went. When the 19-year-old American finally hit a terrific forehand winner up the line to hold serve and close the gap to 4-5, Rod Laver Arena erupted.
But then Azarenka brought proceedings to a halt – just as Williams had done in the quarterfinal. Once again the trainer was called; once again there was manipulation of the player’s torso and once again people started wondering who was being manipulated.
Earlier, Dr. Tim Wood, who was called on court again, confirmed for me that Serena had been very sore when she did something to her lower back, but Azarenka refused to confirm anything about her injury when she was asked about it in the on-court interview which only served to arouse suspicions. Had she called for a time out because she was panicking or because she was really hurt? In press conference later she was grilled on the subject.
"I should have called the trainer a little bit earlier before that, when I got to the point I couldn’t really breathe and had to go off court," she said. "So there was a little of my bad (sic.) But a rib just locked and kept getting worse. I had to have it adjusted. The trainer said we have to go off court to treat that. I really didn’t want to take off my dress on the court."
It was pointed out that she had not mentioned the injury on court on during a TV interview immediately afterward.
"What can I tell you a few seconds after the match?" she said, looking a little flustered. "I couldn’t really talk about everything that was going on. You know, I’m telling you what happened right now, honestly, that my back was bothering me. It took me too long of a time to call the trainer which was my mistake."
Azarenka admitted that the feeling of not being to breathe because of her rib caused her to panic. "It was just so stressing me out, the pain that I had that – you know, maybe it was overreaction but I just really couldn’t breathe."
As with Serena two days before, one does have to take the athlete’s word for it because no one knows how they really feel. Medical time outs and how they are used is a constant topic of controversy and misunderstanding and there doesn’t seem to be any immediate solution.
To her credit, Stephens refused to use any of this as an excuse for her defeat. With the innocence of youth she said, "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."
Stephens admitted to being nervous and she was legitimately outplayed for most of the match by a top player in top form. But the winners she produced toward the end revealed the possibilities that lie within her game and she will learn from all her experiences here in Melbourne. The 19-year-old will now move up to No. 17 on the WTA ranking and there is no reason why the upward momentum will not continue.
Maria Sharpova’s easy start to the tournament came to a shuddering halt when she was outplayed by China’s Li Na 6-2, 6-2. Having only dropped nine games in four matches going in, Sharapova suddenly found it difficult to win any herself.
"She played an excellent match," Sharapova admitted. "She was aggressive, taking the first ball and doing something with it. When I was trying to, I was making too many unforced errors. I felt like I had my fair share of opportunities. I just couldn’t take them today."
Even when winning the French Open in 2011 – the same year she reached the final here – the Chinese player was not hitting the ball with such power and authority. Many of her forehands simply left Sharapova standing.
Fit or not, Azarenka is going to have her work cut out in the final if Li maintains this form.