MELBOURNE, Australia — Sloane Stephens sat for nine minutes, mostly staring at the court and trying to forget the curious timing of Victoria Azarenka’s medical timeout.
The 19-year-old American had just saved five match points and broken Azarenka. But she knew she had to hold serve to stay in her first Grand Slam semifinal whenever Azarenka — the No. 1 player and defending Australian Open champion — returned to Rod Laver Arena.
The restless murmuring in the crowd gave way to slow claps. Why had Azarenka chosen that very moment for a medical break?
Azarenka eventually hustled onto the court, and Stephens won only three more points in a 6-1, 6-4 loss.
“I almost did the choke of the year,” Azarenka said in a frank admission during an on-court interview. “At 5-3, having so many chances, I couldn’t close it out.”
The crowd that had cheered wildly for Stephens, only 25 hours after she ousted an injured Serena Williams, gave Azarenka tepid applause as she left the court. She’ll face 2011 finalist Li Na in the final Saturday. Li advanced with a 6-2, 6-2 win over No. 2-ranked Maria Sharapova the day before.
Azarenka’s immediate post-match remarks suggest she panicked after failing to convert five match points, her forehand misfiring. She had little trouble finishing the match after she came back, and the 29th-seeded Stephens had cooled off.
“I just felt a little bit overwhelmed. I realized I’m one step away from the final and nerves got into me for sure,” Azarenka said.
The 23-year-old Belarusian said she was later compelled to explain that she misunderstood the question in the on-court interview, and she wanted to dispel the perception that her medical timeout amounted to little more than gamesmanship.
Medical staff said Azarenka had timeouts for treatment of left knee and rib injuries. The rib needed to be manipulated because it was affecting her breathing. Azarenka hadn’t helped herself in a second television interview after the match when she said she couldn’t breathe.
“I had chest pains,” she said. “It was like I was getting a heart attack.”
She tried to allay any negative perception with her explanation that the choking was related to shortness of breath from the rib injury, not her faltering game.
“When you cannot breathe, you start to panic,” she said. “I was really panicking, not because I couldn’t convert my match point. That’s not the case. I mean, I’m experienced enough to go over those emotions. But when you cannot breathe, when something’s really blocking you, the stress — that was the stress I was talking about.
“What I said — that I was stressed out and choked — was not because I couldn’t finish my shot. It was just so stressing me out the pain that I had that, maybe it was overreaction, but I just really couldn’t breathe.”
Azarenka had retired during previous Grand Slam matches, including a fourth-round match against Serena Williams at the 2009 Australian Open.
In an earlier men’s semifinal, top-seeded Novak Djokovic dispensed with No. 4-seeded David Ferrer, 6-2, 6-2, 6-1, saying he “played perfectly” to reach his third consecutive Australian Open title match.