No Timeout Azarenka
I blogged my thoughts that the brouhaha over Victoria (Vika) Azarenka’s Australian Open semifinal timeout against Sloane Stephens was overblown, and that the primary beneficiaries of the medical timeout are the tournament organizer, and the fans. Several big names in the tennis media couldn’t stop talking about gamesmanship, though. Despite Azarenka’s explanations at press conferences, despite the confirmations of the tournament’s medical trainers that Vika needed treatment, when Vika and Li Na took to the court, the crowd clearly favored the Chinese player. Vika might as well have been wearing a red G on her dress. As the crowd cheered for a Li winner or an Azarenka mistake, ESPN’s commenters kept reminding us of the timeout.
That distraction was a shame, because competitive Women’s finals have been relatively rare, and this one was very evenly matched. Li was dictating play and took a close first set 6-4. Azarenka seemed poised to answer, leading 3-1 in the second and ahead 30-15 on Li’s serve. Vika forced Li to retrieve. Li hit a high soft shot, giving Vika a choice of directions to hit the swing volley. Li chose crosscourt, Vika hit down the line. Li tried to stop and change directions, but rolled over her left ankle and crumpled onto the court.
Li stood up in pain, hobbling and keeping weight off her left ankle. A ballgirl brought her a towel, but she clearly needed the trainer and, yes, a timeout. A delay for Azarenka would have brought hoots and howls, but as the trainer wrapped Li’s ankle the crowd was very silent. Perhaps they realized the irony, but perhaps not since Li’s injury was self-evident. Vika would have had to shed blood to take an injury timeout in this final.
As play resumed, Li won five straight points, to hold for 2-3 and 40-love against Azarenka. Vika won five straight to hold at 4-2, and held twice more to take the second set 6-4. Li was no longer dictating, not serving as well on that bad ankle, but still had a chance.
Li was on serve 2-1 in the third set, ESPN’s commenters explained that there would soon be another delay due to a fireworks display to celebrate Australia Day. Apparently the tournament treats it like a rain delay. Both players were allowed to leave the court, and talk to their coaches for almost ten minutes – and no one could blame it on Azarenka. One of the commenters said that Li should make sure to keep moving, and keep her ankle warm and loose, but the Chinese player essentially sat through the break.
Within a point after play resumed, Li ran wide for a shot and went down on the same left ankle, rolling on her back and smacking the back of her head hard on on the court. She was clearly stunned, and received a thorough exam from the trainer to be sure she hadn’t suffered a concussion. Her thick ponytail may have saved her from worse, but she later claimed that she did black out for a moment. Again the commenters and crowd were forced to contemplate another lengthy delay, about seven minutes, that could not possibly be blamed on gamesmanship.
Against a game but shaky Li Na, Vika won the next three games and took the match 4-6, 6-4, 6-3.
The injuries and media distractions were a dual shame because I think Li Na and Victoria Azarenka could have played a classic final. I think Li would have won, too.