Was Azarenka’s timeout just pure gamesmanship?


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The murky issue of gamesmanship in tennis reared its ugly head at the Australian Open as world number one Victoria Azarenka took a controversial medical timeout en route to securing her semi-final victory against American teenager Sloane Stephens.

Azarenka described it as "very important" as a means to conquering nerves and trouble with breathing, but it prompted jeers around Arthur Ashe with her opponent Stephens clearly affected by the apparent gamesmanship.

Leading by a set and 5-4, the defending champion had just missed five match points when she took a 10-minute timeout, leaving her teenage opponent to sit and wait patiently on court, with her momentum completely taken away.

When she eventually returned, the Belarusian broke Stephens to clinch a 6-1 6-4 victory and a place in the final, but the far-from-impressed crowd jeered her as she celebrated.

Azarenka told a press conference that she had required the timeout because of a "locked rib" that made it difficult to breathe.

Watch her interview immediately after the match below...

"I had been struggling ... in the second set (with) my back," she said. "And it just kept getting worse. I should have called the trainer a little bit earlier before (but) when I got to the point that I couldn't really breathe and had to go off court.

"I understand the whole situation right now but it just really simple misunderstanding of a question. I guess it was my bad. I should have called the trainer a little bit earlier, before I got to the point that I couldn't really breathe and had to go off court.

"When you cannot breathe you start to panic," she continued. "I was really panicking (but) not because I couldn't convert my match points. What can I do? Is it my fault the doctor took that long to evaluate? I said, 'I don't want two medical timeouts. I only took one'."

Watch highlights of the match, including the controversial timeout, below...

Azarenka's antics were in stark contrast to the quarter-final between Stephens and Serena Williams on Wednesday, when Williams had suffered a back injury but took a quick timeout and subsequently refused to blame it for her surprise defeat. Indeed, Stephens said afterwards that she has never taken a medical timeout in her burgeoning career.

At the US Open in 2005, Mary Pierce took a 12-minute break for two simultaneous injuries in her semi-final with Elena Dementieva. The Russian had taken the first set with ease but when Pierce took her lengthy timeout, her rhythm was destroyed and the Frenchwoman recovered for victory. Stephens appeared similarly affected.

Under Australian Open rules, a player requesting treatment is evaluated and if they have developed "a treatable medical condition" they can then receive a three-minute medical timeout, but players continue to abuse the system and to employ tactics described by many as just brazen cheating.

Azarenka described it as a "panic attack" in another interview immediately after the match with ESPN, but there was almost widespread condemnation of her antics from pundits and on Twitter.

Former world number two Pam Shriver tweeted shortly afterwards: "A terrible call in Kim (Clijsters)-Justine (Henin) final (in 2004) here helped usher in the challenge system. Now this injury charade of 10 minutes may change injury rule."

Grand Slam doubles champion Mark Woodforde, asked whether he buys the Azarenka back excuse, said: "No. Not for one second."

Eurosport expert Greg Rusedski: "There was no doubt that it affected Stephens, and for that to happen to such a young player on the big stage is a real shame.And Stephens herself, was gracious as she had this to say: "I love Vika and we share the same agent. We actually are pretty good friends. I'm sure I'll see her and we'll talk about it."


VIDEO OF THE DAY: Novak Djokovic said he was done with on court impersonations, but he just couldn't help himself. Here he is treating legend Henri Leconte for "his madness" during his match against Australian Pat Cash.

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