Victoria Azarenka defeated Sloane Stephens 6-1, 6-4 to make her second straight Australian Open final and she did so under some very controversial circumstances. After squandering five match points in the second set, Azarenka called a 10-minute medical timeout that left Stephens waiting to serve to stay in the match. Azarenka then successfully broke Stephens to seal the match to the subdued applause of the Aussie crowd.
People will be talking about this one for a while.
Game-by-game analysis after the jump.
1:25 a.m. ET | Game, set, match: Azarenka defeats Stephens 6-1, 6-4.
Azarenka is still struggling with that forehand. Completely unsure about that shot. Doesn’t know whether to hit it or guide it in. But Stephens’ decision to just sit for 10 minutes during the MTO as opposed to getting up and serving some practice serves does seem to have disrupted her rhythm.
Azarenka earns her sixth match point and finally converts as Stephens goes for a backhand down the line winner that lands long.
The Aussie crowd gives Stephens a fantastic ovation as she walks off court. She’ll be disappointed in the end there. She had the World No. 1 on the verge of a breakdown.
“Well I almost did the choke of the year,” Azarenka says during her on court interview. Oddly, despite being asked about why she took the MTO, Azarenka doesn’t give a medical reason. Simply says she felt overwhelmed and the nerves got to her. Last time I checked, that’s not a medical reason for a 10 minute break.
Paging Vika's PR Team. Paging Vika's PR Team. We have a CODE RED.—
Lindsay Gibbs (@linzsports) January 24, 2013
You could hear a pin drop during Azarenka's on-court interview; compare the crowd volume to Li's remarks—
Ed McGrogan (@EdMcGrogan) January 24, 2013
1:17 a.m. ET | Azarenka takes a medical timeout.
Azarenka has left the court for medical evaluation. ESPN2 says she was pointing to her chest when speaking to the tournament doctor. To be fair, yes, it’s very hot out there. But this looks more about Azarenka feeling stressed about blowing five match points than any sort of illness.
Twitter is riding the wave of cynicism on this one too.
This is where, to my mind, the rules of tennis have to be seriously tightened—
Neil Harman (@NeilHarmanTimes) January 24, 2013
Azarenka decides to take a vacation in some air conditioning before making Sloane serve to stay in match—
Greg Couch (@gregcouch) January 24, 2013
Stephens has chosen to remain on court. Is Azarenka trying to ice the kicker? Stephens will serve to stay in the match when Azarenka comes back.
1:10 a.m. ET | Azarenka leads 5-4.
Stephens saves five match points and breaks back. Unreal.
Azarenka earns two match points and Stephens saves them both with some great defense and a little help from Azarenka’s errors. She’s more than mildly angry, as she slaps at a ball angrily.
But Azarenka gets Match Point No. 3 as Stephens has a mid court sitter that she sends long. Azarenka lets out a bloodcurling scream as she sends a forehand long. Not exactly endearing herself to the Aussie crowd here with her attitude over the last 10 minutes. That forehand has really let her down in this game.
Stephens earns a break point and but shanks a forehand return miles out.
Match Point No. 4 and again Azarenka duffs a midcourt forehand into the net. She’s choking these away for no reason. Well, other than the fact that a Slam final and the No. 1 ranking is on the line. So I guess that’s a pretty good reason.
Match Point No. 5: Guess what! Vika misses another forehand. Incredible.
At deuce, Stephens nails a perfect backhand pass. Held it and then whipped it across her body for a short angle winner. Azarenka, who has no confidence in her forehand at all, is charging the net as much as possible. She dares Stephens to pass her and the teen sends it long.
Stephens earns another break point and makes no mistake this time. Azarenka is pushing forehands in and when Stephens finally gets a look at a winner, she knocks a forehand down the line to break back.
Here comes the trainer for Azarenka. Can the trainer fix her forehand?
12:56 a.m. ET | Azarenka breaks, leads 5-3.
Gotta love this Aussie crowd. It’s absolutely sweltering on Rod Laver Arena and they are now rooting hard for a third set, erupting after every point Stephens wins. She’s come out with an eye towards aggression this time and it’s the right tactic, though she’s missing. She sprays an overhead long and sends a big forehand wide, giving Azarenka two break points. Azarenka only needs one. Her defense keeps her in the rally and Stephens finally sends a lazy backhand long.
By the tepid response from the crowd and the dead silence in the ESPN2 booth, you’d think somebody died.
Azarenka will serve for a spot in the final.
12:50 a.m. ET | Azarenka leads 4-3.
Great fightback from Stephens and then she gets broken at love, the result of a lapse in focus in the face of a steely Vika. Ah the indiscretions of youth.
But Stephens fights back and earns a break point thanks to a great inside-out forehand that leaves Azarenka slapping her racket in disgust. One thing Stephens should learn walking away from this match is how effective that shot is against the top players. She may not need it to win against the lower-ranked set, but if she wants to push into the Top 10 she has to be willing to go for that shot. It looks so natural for her.
On game point, Azarenka throws in two doublefaults and screams in utter rage. Stephens converts on break point and we’re back on serve. Not sure what’s hotter right now, the court or Azarenka’s head. She smacks a ball into the court and stomps to her chair.
12:39 a.m. ET | Azarenka leads 3-2.
Azarenka doesn’t call the trainer on the changeover but she’s clearly feeling that injury. Not sure if it’s the leg or ankle.
“This could be a great break for Stephens,” ESPN2′s Pam Shriver says. Trying to think of any other situation where a potential injury would be termed “a great break” for anyone. Nope, can’t think of one.
Stephens has finally realized that she’s never going to out-rally Azarenka. She’s hitting bigger and it’s working. Stephens holds.
Azarenka is favoring that leg just a bit.
12:32 a.m. ET | Azarenka leads 2-1.
Could this be happening again? Azarenka gets pulled wide and comes up lame.. Seems to have tweaked something in her leg as she goes to the back of the court and leans over as if to stretch it out. Then two points later she gracefully charges the net for a backhand volley winner. So…I think she’s ok. Redfoo breathes a sigh of relief.
Stephens get to 30-30 on Azarenka’s serve and she’s two points from getting right back into this match. But once again she tries to whip a forehand down the line and nets its. Just not using her footwork to get enough space and she ends up getting jammed by the ball.
Stephens still gets it to deuce and lucks out when Azarenka’s running forehand passing shot clips the tape. She converts her first break point of the day with a clean inside out forehand winner and just like that, she’s back on serve.
12:26 a.m. ET | Azarenka leads 2-0.
Second verse, same as the first. Azarenka holds easily and then breaks.
Chris Evert: “Alright, let’s see some more volleys, Sloane!” Totally unbiased stuff from the ESPN2 commentary team.
Not that the sentiment is wrong. Break points down, Stephens plays the best two back-to-back points of the match, one that she finishes with some great volleys at the net and another with a big ace. Then she misses two rally forehands badly to give Azarenka another break point, which she converts when Stephens pulls a backhand wide.
Ah, the inconsistencies of youth.
Stephens has turned into a pumpkin. If a pumpkin is a demoralized junior player with obvious talent but little patience or gameplan.—
Jon Wertheim (@jon_wertheim) January 24, 2013
12:16 a.m. ET | Azarenka takes the set 6-1.
Whelp, that was a quick one. It’s just a difference in class right now, as Azarenka holds and then breaks at 15 with a perfect topspin lob as Stephens charges the net. Stephens looks flat and doesn’t seem to be clear on what she wants to against Azarenka. Again, though Stephens’ win over Serena was huge context is important. Serena can go off the rails and just start missing, as she did yesterday in large part because of her injuries, and those free points can buoy a young player’s confidence and keep them in the match. Azarenka is just suffocating her right now. She’s playing relative clean, she’s hitting the ball deep and wide, and she’s crushing Stephens’ second serve.
12:08 a.m. ET | Azarenka leads 4-1.
Stephens still content to be the counterpuncher but Azarenka won’t give her the easy errors she was gifted yesterday and the only way you can be an effective counterpuncher is if you don’t miss on easy rally balls. Stephens is already in double figures in unforced errors, 14 through five games, though she’s finding success when she moves forward to the net.
You can already see the gulf between Stephens tactically compared to Azarenka. On game point on her own serve she hits a great backhand slice down the line that results in a ball that any other Top 10 player would step in and crush. Instead, Stephens is a little slow to get to the reply and sends back a looping shot into the middle of the court. Voila, Vika is back in the point and eventually wins it.
For the second straight game, Stephens is broken despite having game points. This is looking a lot like the first semifinal.
11:55 p.m. ET | Azarenka leads 2-1.
Tom Rinaldi reports on ESPN2 that the on-court temperature is now up to 120 degrees. That is very hot.
Easy hold from Azarenka to consolidate the break and once again Stephens has a look at an easy service hold but finds herself in a multiple-deuce game. She’s starting to loosen up though, in a good way. Big ace and eventually holds with a great crosscourt passing shot from the backhand side. Stephens is on the board.
In the meantime, here’s a nice look at Stephens’ career day after beating Serena on Wednesday.
11:45 p.m. ET | Azarenka breaks, 1-0.
Stephens trying to rally to get a feel for Azarenka’s ball. Vika’s not having any of that. She’s ready to go from first ball and breaks Stephens immediately. This could go quickly if Stephens doesn’t tighten things up straight away. She’s already spraying easy errors off both wings plus a doublefault.
11:42 p.m. ET | Pre-match warm-up
Interestingly, Azarenka asks umpire Kerrilyn Cramer whether the heat rule is in place. If invoked, the heat rule would allow for a 10-minute break between a second and third set. Shows the heat, which was measured at over 110 degrees on court during the first semifinal, is on her mind.
As for Stephens, how will she handle her first Slam semifinal after the biggest win of her career, in her first match-up against the World No. 1? Tough ask for the 19-year old but she’s got the weapons to make this competitive.
The key for Stephens is the same as it was against Serena Williams. She doesn’t need to pull a Li Na and run away with the first set but she does need to hold her serve, hold it relatively easily, and let the pressure build on Azarenka, who is one of the best returners in the game.
Stephens will serve to start the match.
Sloane Stephens and Victoria Azarenka will meet in the second of two women’s semifinals on Thursday at the Australian Open. The match will follow Maria Sharapova-Li Na, which is scheduled to begin at 9:30 p.m. ET. ESPN2 will televise both matches.
Stephens, the No. 29 seed, is in her first Grand Slam semifinal after stunning fellow American Serena Williams in the quarterfinals. The 19-year-old Stephens is the first U.S. teen to get this far at a major since 2001. She has never faced Azarenka, the defending champion and No. 1 seed. Azarenka, who hasn’t played a seeded player in her first five matches, needs to win the tournament to retain her No. 1 ranking.