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Victoria Azarenka

 

It would seem that even champions get nervous. Very nervous.

As Victoria Azarenka homed in on a place in the women’s singles final, sploshing Sloane Stephens for a set and a bit with power and panache, everything suddenly went horribly wrong both on and off the court. On court, the world No.1 went off the boil, started to panic and ended up being prodded and poked by the medics who discovered that one of her ribs had “locked”.

Off the court, the Twitterati went ballistic, accusing Azarenka of gamesmanship for taking a nine-minute medical time out just as Stephens was about to serve to stay in the match. This was going to take some sorting out. The only incontrovertible fact on offer was that Azarenka won, 6-1 6-4.

She had rattled through the first set in just 33 minutes and had taught the 19-year-old American a valuable lesson: it is all very well to be a scrambler and a retriever, but if you are going to get the ball back, make sure you get it back into a place far away from your opponent’s racquet. Azarenka had been doing just that happily and it was working a treat.

But by the second set, Stephens was making a better fist of things. She got a break of serve. She may have dropped her serve a couple of games later, but she was not going to go quietly. And then Azarenka started to wobble. Two double faults in a row cost her her serve and she screamed in fury.

This, it transpired, was a key moment and we will return to it later, but on with the story.

Stephens immediately dropped her serve, leaving the defending champion four points away from the final. Serve it out, Vika, and you are home and hosed. But she couldn’t. Five match points came and went until finally, Stephens broke again. Gulp. It was now 5-4 and the American teenager had the chance to serve to stay in the match. At which point, Azarenka called for the trainer and after a brief assessment, left the court for treatment.

Nine minutes later, she was back and as Stephens’ serve faltered again, Azarenka was through to the final on her sixth match point.

And that is when all hell broke loose.

Asked in her on-court interview why she had left the court and how she was feeling now, Azarenka opened a can of worms.

“I almost did the choke of the year right now,” she said. “At 5-3, having so many chances and I couldn't close it out. I was a bit overwhelmed realising I was one step away from the final. Nerves got into me, for sure."

That was when the Twitterers, the Facebookers and the bloggers went wild. Surely this was blatant gamesmanship? Leaving the court because you are choking?

As it turned out, Azarenka claimed that she was literally choking. She could not breathe. A rib and back problem had been bothering her for a couple for days and suddenly got worse during the second set, round about the time when she dropped her serve in the seventh game.

“I'm telling you what happened right now honestly, that my back was bothering me,” she said in her post-match press conference.

“It took me too long of a time to call the trainer, which was my mistake. I took it to the point where I couldn't breathe, which was causing from my back problem, and I couldn't really figure out what was going on on the court. When the trainer told me that was the rib that was blocking that, my back, that's what happened.

“When you cannot breathe you start to panic. I was really panicking, not because I couldn't convert my match point. That's not the case. I mean, 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 realise what was going on with me.”

As for her response to the on-court interview question by Channel 7’s Sam Smith, she felt that was a simple misunderstanding.

“I think I just really misunderstood what she asked me because the question was I had few difficulties and why I went off,” Azarenka explained.

“I completely thought of a different thing, why I couldn't close out of match, you know, that I had few difficulties. So I understand the whole situation right now, but it just really simple misunderstanding of a question.”

So Azarenka lives to fight another day, and Stephens is heading for the airport. But the American will be back. Her ranking ought to move up to No.17 in the world, and with the confidence and experience she has gained from her run here, she will head for Roland Garros, Wimbledon and Flushing Meadows with a new spring in her step. In the meantime, Azarenka has Li Na to face on Saturday.

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