Tennis

Azarenka pulls cheap trick in semi win

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Greg Couch

Greg Couch has been a national columnist at AOL Fanhouse and The Sporting News and an award-winning columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. He was featured twice in "Best American Sports Writing" and was recognized by the US Tennis Writers Association for best column writing and match coverage. He covers tennis on his personal blog. Follow him on Twitter.

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Technically, choking is only an injury, or medical emergency, if something is stuck in your throat. So the No. 1 women’s tennis player, Victoria Azarenka, on the verge of choking away her match Thursday, resorted to a cheap trick to beat American teen Sloane Stephens in the Australian Open semifinals.

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Azarenka faked an injury, and walked off the court for 10 minutes for treatment. She says the injury was real. I’m calling B.S.

She simply took a 10-minute vacation in air conditioning, leaving Stephens alone on the court in a crucial moment … just ... sitting there ... waiting.

The “injury’’ was supposedly for Azarenka’s chest and back, though she didn’t seem to remember that 15 minutes later, when asked after her 6-1, 6-4 victory why she had left the court.

“I couldn’t breathe, you know,’’ Azarenka told the on-court reporter. “That game, you know, I just had chest pain, like getting a heart attack or something out there. I just needed to make sure it’s OK cause I really couldn’t breathe.’’

What a terrible look for women’s tennis in a rare big match not involving a Williams sister.

“I love Vika ...’’ Stephens said after the match, calling Azarenka a friend. “I’m sure we’ll talk. She should get an oxygen tank and figure it out.’’

Stephens said it sounded less like a medical problem than a personal problem.

She was right. That was not an injury. It was a panic attack. Azarenka was falling apart and didn’t know what to do. So she manipulated the injury timeout rules to freeze Stephens, the 19-year-old who beat Serena Williams in the quarterfinals a day earlier.

It worked, too. Stephens, serving to stay in the match, lost the game. The defending champ Azarenka will face China’s Li Na in Saturday’s final — Na defeated No. 2-ranked Maria Sharapova 6-2, 6-2 in the earlier semifinal.

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Stephens had created the first non-Williams sisters American tennis buzz in a while. Well, sort of non-Williams sisters. She beat Serena and created excitement from people who thought they were seeing the heir apparent.

It was a little overboard, as Serena hurt her back during the quarterfinal match and could barely move. Stephens is not there yet, but already is a top-20 player with her arrow pointing up.

With her win over Serena, she quickly picked up 20,000 Twitter followers, and also received this Tweet from Shaquille O’Neal: “congrats on a great match. Excellent focus n poise. Keep it goin. When u defeat a legend you become a legend. Keep it going’’

She needed one more win to reach the final. But Azarenka crushed her in the first set. Up 5-3 in the second, she served for the match and had five match points. But Azarenka made unforced errors on all five and lost the game.

The No. 1 player in the world, and she was so scared she couldn’t get the ball onto the court. Up 5-4, she called for a doctor, as rules allow for an injury. Then, she stood up, and just walked off the court.

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If she had a real injury, she would have been allowed under the rules to go. Panic breaks are not within the rules.

“I almost did the choke of the year,’’ Azarenka said.

Look, in every sport there are little tricks of the trade, acceptable ways of violating the rules. Spitballs in baseball. Stuff like that.

Walking off the court does not fall under that category. Meanwhile, Stephens mistakenly just sat on her chair the whole time, rather than moving around to stay loose. When Azarenka finally came back, Stephens dumped two serves into the net on the second point.

It was the worst look for women’s tennis since 2009, when then-No. 1 Dinara Safina started crying on the court while choking away the French Open final, asking out loud “Why am I such a chicken?’’

Still, this was hardly the first time anyone has faked an injury in tennis to stall. In fact, fake-cramping was becoming such a rampant problem a few years ago that tennis put in rules to stop it.

Still, in one day at the Australian Open three years ago, I watched Roger Federer use a fake bathroom break against Nikolay Davydenko, and Novak Djokovic ask to leave against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga so he could go throw up.

"When the sun comes from the side, the ball seems half the size and is just hard to hit,’’ Federer said that day. “I never take toilet breaks, but I thought 'Why not?' ’’

Asked when he noticed something was wrong with Djokovic, Tsonga said this: “Five years ago.’’

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Yes, these things irritate the players, who know exactly what’s going on.

After the on-court interview when Azarenka said she left because she couldn’t breathe, she said her injuries were her back and chest. She said her timing was bad, that she should have left the court earlier.

Right. This was a lesson for Stephens in how the veterans do it.

It’s funny, because the first time I went to a Stephens match, she was playing juniors at the US Open. I stood next to her opponent’s coach, who was signaling in instructions even though rules prohibit coaching.

It’s OK. Stephens is just 19. She’ll learn what it takes to be a champion.

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