By Maud Watson
Just a Match
Defending champion Victoria Azarenka has once again reached the Aussie Open final, but unfortunately for her, that run is tainted by controversy thanks to a very questionable medical timeout taken by the Belarusian in her semifinal clash with Sloane Stephens. Odds were Azarenka was still going to win that match whether she did it in two or three. She’d outplayed the teenager throughout the bulk of the two sets, and Stephens has shown a tendency to play more poorly from ahead than behind against her higher-ranked opponents. But with no way to confirm the legitimacy of Azarenka’s claims, however, the decision to take the medical time out will always be labeled (and likely was) a dubious ploy. Azarenka at least had the brains to acknowledge the timing was bad, but she did herself no favors with fluctuating explanations for the time out, which partially explains why the media was so harsh with her. Part of the harsh treatment may have also stemmed from Stephens becoming the new media darling. And likely a chunk of the treatment was due strictly to the fact that it was Azarenka. After all, it’s not as though she’s the only high profile player from either tour to employ such tactics, and she’s certainly not the only one who has an established history of calling questionable medical time outs that appear to alter a match. But she’s not as popular as some of the other offenders, and so she paid a heavier price for it. It’s likely she really doesn’t care though, which is good, because when Azarenka walked off the victor Thursday night, she didn’t win any fans, just a tennis match.
The Forgotten One
What a difference a coach makes. Li Na has joked about how hard new coach Carlos Rodriguez has pushed her, but her results indicate that it’s been worth it. She’s been with the Argentine less than a year, and already she’s picked up multiple titles and is guaranteed of returning to the Top 5 in the rankings come Monday. Her trip to the Oz final is also a reminder to everyone that she’s still a major title contender. Even when it was down to the final four, many pundits only spoke of Azarenka or Sharapova winning the title, with a few over-excited analysts arguing Stephens was destined to go all the way. There was little mention made of the 2011 Roland Garros champion being the one to walk away with the trophy. But after an emphatic thrashing of Sharapova that saw the Chinese woman drop only four games, she’s forced everyone to take notice. She’s playing the better tennis than Azarenka as well, so perhaps Grand Slam title No. 2 is just on the horizon.
Leader of the Pack
Women’s tennis is definitely seeing a young crop of players poised to make a move up the rankings, and the undisputed leader of the next generation is Sloane Stephens. She didn’t necessarily have the most difficult draw at the Aussie Open, but it’s significant that she took out a number of young guns who will be her rivals over the course of the next decade. Her win over Serena was also huge, not just because it got her to the semis, but the manner in how she did it. Though Serena struggled with back spasms in the middle of the match, Stephens didn’t allow it to overly rattle her. Instead, she raised her level. Everyone kept waiting for her to crumble and Serena to step it up, but it was Stephens who proved the more composed and steady of the two. It was a watershed moment for the American, but she can’t rest on those laurels. The real test will be if she can now meet the increased expectations that come with her success Down Under, and with her game, variety, and personality, she looks equipped to do so.
Serena Williams’ impressive run at the majors came to a dramatic halt when she was felled by compatriot Sloane Stephens in the Australian Open quarterfinals. To say this loss was as monumental as her defeat to Razzano at the French would be a disservice to Williams. It was a quarterfinal, and unlike in Paris, she was carrying an ankle injury and was hampered by back spasms for a stretch of games in the middle of the match. But to chalk up the loss solely to those injuries would also be to shortchange Stephens, because along with the pain that Serena expressed on her face, we also saw some of that other “P” word – panic. Maybe it was the foot speed or power from her younger opponent. Maybe it was the knowledge that with a trip to the semis she could knock Azarenka out of contention for the No. 1 ranking. Maybe it was just the pressure of the old guard trying to keep out the new wave, or maybe it was a combo of things. Whatever it was, the veteran American began to press – something which more than one commentator suggested likely contributed to the flare of back spasms – and those winners that Serena seemed to crack at will in earlier rounds were suddenly flying long or catching the tape. Privately, Serena is apt to attribute the loss all up to injuries, but the rest of the field should take note. Serena also looked mentally vulnerable.
At the time of writing, we know who one of the men’s finalists will be, and that’s Novak Djokovic. The Serb was the odds makers’ favorite to make the final, so his presence there isn’t shocking. But the manner in how he got there was. There was nothing to indicate that his Round of 16 encounter with Stan Wawrinka would be anything special. He’d gotten the better of the Swiss No. 2 since 2006, so when he found himself down a set and 5-2, you could forgive him and anyone else for being shocked. But as he’s so often done, he dug deep, and when it came to those few crucial points that separate the men from the boys, it was Djokovic who came out on top. He refused to crack and managed to eek out a win 12-10 in the fifth. Questions about the impact of that five-hour epic on his chances for the title immediately followed, but Djokovic proved his fitness by winning six of his next seven sets, routinely defeating Berdych and then drubbing Ferrer en route to the final. He’s going to have to step up his game irrespective of it’s Federer or Murray he faces on Sunday, but battle tested and sufficiently recovered and rested, the odds still favor him.