The match between top seed and defending champion Victoria Azarenka and 19-year-old Sloane Stephens seemed straightforward at first. In the first set, both players were content to stay on the baseline, working points patiently. Stephens has the power and speed around the court to stay with Azarenka in such rallies, up to a point. But Azarenka showed her greater experience and more finely developed skills, as game after game she made fewer errors and picked her moments better to finish more points with winners, taking the set, 6-1.
Things suddenly got more complicated in the third game of the second set. Leading 2-0, Azarenka landed awkwardly and winced in pain, hopping on one leg and stopping at the back of the court to gather herself. She played on and didn’t ask for treatment, but for the next two games was reluctant to run to her left. At the same time, Stephens started looking for ways to seize control of points, taking opportunities to move to the net or hit explosive inside-out forehands for winners. Stephens broke back.
Azarenka broke again by demonstrating that she can also dominate points from the net. But then she served three double faults in one game—something she also did in her matches against Jamie Hampton and Elena Vesnina earlier in the tournament—and Stephens broke back to 3-4. The next game was reminiscent of the first set, as Stephens made more errors under the growing pressure to stay in the match. Moving well again, Azarenka outplayed her from the baseline to break to 5-3.
Serving for the match, Azarenka showed the pressure was getting to her as well. Suddenly making repeated unforced forehand errors, she failed to convert five match points, and Stephens eventually broke back with another forehand winner.
With Stephens about to serve to stay in the tournament, Azarenka called for the trainer and doctor, who had been waiting at the side of the court since she first showed signs of a leg injury six games earlier. Azarenka’s gestures appeared to indicate a problem with her back and trouble breathing. In response to the trainer’s questions, she also gestured toward her leg. The medical staff quickly decided to take Azarenka off court to treat what they later officially described as injuries to her rib and knee.
When Azarenka returned, she immediately played well, drawing more errors from Stephens, and breaking her serve to finish the match, 6-1 6-4.
Azarenka’s decision to interrupt play for medical treatment at such a high-pressure moment at the end of the match raised a lot of eyebrows, and her varying explanations afterwards only added to the controversy. Depending on which of her statements one takes to be the most accurate, and how one assesses her intentions, one can reach very different conclusions about whether she took the time-out because she couldn’t play on without getting treatment, or because she hoped to change the psychological dynamic of the match. Rather than making a judgment based on my own hunches, I’ll summarize what she said in three different interviews and let you draw your own conclusions.
Samantha Smith’s first question in the on-court interview immediately after the match was about the reason for the medical time-out:
Q: Victoria, congratulations, you’re back in the final, but you had a few difficulties out there. Can you tell us why you had to go off, and how are you?
A: Well I almost did the choke of the year right now. At 5-3, having so many chances, I couldn’t close it out, but I’m glad I could turn around. I just felt a little bit overwhelmed, playing and realizing that I’m one step away from the final, and nerves got into me for sure.
Q: Apart from the nerves, were you happy with the performance overall?
A: Until 5-3, yes, very happy. After that, it was my bad. But it’s important to overcome this little bit of a struggle and finish the match. And definitely happy to be back in the final, and I love to play here, and just couldn’t lose, I mean I couldn’t as I was too upset.
A few minutes later, Tom Rinaldi interviewed Azarenka for ESPN in the hallway under the stadium and asked a similar question:
Q: Why did you leave the court?
A: I couldn’t breathe, that game it was, I don’t know, I just had chest pain, it was like getting a heart attack [laughs] or something out there. I don’t know, I just needed to make sure it’s okay, and because I really couldn’t breathe.
About an hour later, Azarenka was asked again about the time-out by multiple reporters in her post-match press conference:
Q: Could you perhaps talk us through the end of the match and what prompted your departure and when you came back?
A: Well, you know, I had been struggling a little bit throughout the whole match, from the second set, my back. And it just kept getting worse. I should have, you know, called the trainer a little bit earlier before that when I got to the point that I couldn’t really breathe and had to go off court.
So there was a little bit of my bad. But just a rib got locked and kept getting worse. I had to have it adjusted. I really had to go and take that medical timeout.
Q: Would you agree the timing was unfortunate?
A: The timing, yeah, it was my bad. The game before that when I lost my service game, it kept getting worse. I thought I would have to play through it and keep calm. But it just got worse. You know, I had to do it.
Q: You said after the match you were overwhelmed, rather than mentioning your back. Is there a reason why you didn’t mention it?
A: You know what, I think I just really misunderstood what she asked me because the question was I had few difficulties and why I went off. I completely thought of a different thing, why I couldn’t close out of match, you know, that I had few difficulties.
Whatever Azarenka was thinking and feeling in this match, she will need to be far more mentally and physically strong to have a chance to defend her title. In the final she will play Li Na, who had no such troubles in her semifinal against Maria Sharapova, a much stronger and more experienced opponent than Stephens. Li matched Sharapova’s power, chose smarter shots with safer clearance over the net, made far fewer errors, and showed no weaknesses, winning 6-2 6-2.
That Li could play well enough to beat an on-form Sharapova was no surprise—she has beaten Sharapova in straight sets four times, and her victory in the 2010 Birmingham final was particularly memorable. But that she won in such a dominant fashion in such an important match without showing the slightest self-doubt or loss of focus suggests that she is in the best form of her career.