Victoria Azarenka had more trouble ducking questions about marriage than she did in overcoming Sloane Stephens on her way to the quarter-finals of the Australian Open on Monday.
The Belarussian, trying to win the title for the third consecutive year, was too consistent for Stephens and wrapped up a 6-3 6-2 victory in confident fashion. After the match, Azarenka was quizzed about whether she might be about to marry her boyfriend, the rapper-singer, Redfoo.
"There's nothing still (showing off her ring-free left hand)," she said. "Once you see a big, big bling... big, big bling... maybe." Denmark's Caroline Wozniacki has been sporting a dazzling ring after agreeing to marry golfer Rory McIlroy and Azarenka said the competition was on.
"It had better be bigger than Caro's," she said in an on-court interview. The only other thing Azarenka had to dodge was a backhand from Stephens midway through the first set that hit her in the groin. Twelve months ago, Azarenka was accused of gamesmanship when she took a 10-minute injury timeout after failing to serve out for victory in their semi-final. Having then broken Stephens in the next game to reach the final, she claimed she had needed the break because she "almost did the choke of the year" and was roundly jeered by the crowd on Rod Laver Arena.
The direct hit came when Azarenka led 4-2 in the first set but it did not break her concentration as she took the opener and then broke to lead 2-0 in the second. A lot of the games went to deuce and Stephens stayed in touch to 3-2 but was then broken again in the seventh game and Azarenka served out for victory. With top seed Serena Williams beaten on Sunday and third seed Maria Sharapova going out earlier on Monday, the path is clear for Azarenka to win a third straight title.
But the 24-year-old, who next faces either Polish fifth seed Agnieszka Radwanska or Spanish prospect Garbine Muguruza in the last eight, said the shocks just proved that no one could be taken lightly, whatever their ranking. "I don't consider myself a favourite because I don't consider anybody as the favourite," she said. "Anybody on any given day - we've seen that happen last couple days - can bring their best game. It doesn't matter that you're number two or whatever."
However, Azarenka did admit she feels her game was coming together nicely after a difficult end to 2013. "I'm happy with the way I played," she said. "It was important just to stay in that zone and try to create another opportunity."