For all their winner-takes-all approach to sport, the public here have a high respect for fair play and sportsmanship, which is likely to ensure that Victoria Azarenka is given a frosty reception when the defending champion takes on Li Na in tomorrow’s final of the Australian Open.
While Li is a favourite with the Melbourne public, courtesy of her smiling demeanour and flow of jokes at the expense of her apparently hen-pecked husband, Azarenka drew their opprobrium with her controversial medical time-out towards the end of her semi-final victory yesterday over Sloane Stephens.
Azarenka left the court after failing to serve out for the match and returned some 10 minutes later before breaking Stephens’ serve to secure victory. The convention is that players should not take time-outs before their opponent is about to serve.
Having told one post-match interviewer that she had been “a bit overwhelmed” and another that she had been suffering a “panic attack”, Azarenka later claimed that she had left the court because she had been having trouble breathing because of a “locked rib”.
The cynics, who believe players often take time-outs for tactical rather than medical reasons, pointed out that Azarenka had called for the trainer after blowing five match points. The episode prompted renewed calls for a change to the rules, which allow players to take a three-minute time-out for a “treatable medical condition” once their condition has been assessed.
Azarenka, who claimed that she had misunderstood the question when she made her initial post-match comments, went on television today to defend herself. “I was really freaked out by what was happening to me because I couldn't absolutely breathe and I had to go off court,” she told Channel 7. “I was advised by the doctors to take off court because it was high up my chest and the ribs so we had to go off.”
However David Nainkin, Stephens' coach, told “USA Today” that what had happened was "unfair". He accused Azarenka of “cheating within the rules” and added: “It was unsportsmanlike. I don't think you should be able to leave the court before the opponent serves for 10 minutes for whatever reason. You'd better have something pretty good. I think there's a grey area in the rule book that shouldn't be allowed.”
Critics have not been slow to join the debate. Pam Shriver, the former world No 2, talked about “this injury charade of 10 minutes”, while Patrick McEnroe called the episode a “travesty”. Melbourne’s “Herald Sun” newspaper was running an opinion poll today, asking the public to vote on whether Azarenka had cheated, alongside a feature on “the world’s worst sporting cheats”.
Li refused to be drawn into the controversy at her pre-final press conference this afternoon, saying she had not seen the incident and therefore could not comment on it.
As for tomorrow’s match, Li hinted that Azarenka might be less of a threat than Maria Sharapova had been in the semi-finals, despite the fact that she has lost her last four meetings with the Belarusian.
“I think Maria was even more powerful than Azarenka,” Li said. “She is very good at chasing balls to the side. She never gives up and is so strong in the mind. Azarenka is as well. She has a little bit less power, but she likes to put the ball from corner to corner, to make her opponent run over the whole court.”