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Victoria Azarenka turns on the charm after her 'time-out' controversy

Saturday, 26 January 2013 - 1:49pm IST Updated: Saturday, 26 January 2013 - 1:50pm IST | Agency: Daily Telegraph
Belorussian offers fuller explanation before the women's final to repair damage to her reputation.
  • Reuters

Victoria Azarenka launched a charm offensive on Friday in an attempt to win back a little local goodwill. It will not be an easy task, for the Australian crowd do not warm to her banshee howls and they were even less impressed by the so-called "medical" time-out she claimed on Thursday.

Azarenka plays Li Na of China in today's final at around 8.45am UK time. But she might not have made it this far without the nine minutes she spent off the court at a critical point of her semi-final - nine minutes that allowed her to regroup and then break the serve of Sloane Stephens for the victory.

There was much debate after that match about whether the Belarusian had called the time-out because she was "overwhelmed" - the word she used in her instant on-court interview - or because "a rib got locked", as she told reporters during her press conference around 90 minutes later.

Yesterday Azarenka offered a new explanation that combined elements of both stories. "At 5-3, I was really freaked out by what was happening to me because I couldn't breathe and I had to go off court," she said. "The physio said maybe the ribcage is blocked and causing problems so she unblocked it and did a little bit of work on my knee, that's why it took a bit of time."

Azarenka's reputation is taking a battering out here. The airwaves have been full of former greats debating the issue. When Andre Agassi was asked about the medical time-out rule, he suggested that today's players should be careful how they use it, "for the integrity of the game".

Li Na was also put on the spot, but was careful not to get drawn into the argument. She said she had not watched the match, and so "couldn't say 'that is wrong or is right'?".

Would she ever consider calling a time-out when a match hung in the balance like that? "You know, everyone is different," she replied. "Because for me, I would never use that. But I don't know how another athlete or another player [would behave] because everyone is -different."

This issue could yet affect the destiny of the title. Azarenka has clearly been disconcerted by the incident, and there is little doubt that the crowd on Rod Laver Arena - who have imitated her "uhhhuwwooo" shriek in the past - will get stuck into her.

Li Na, by contrast, has always been a darling of the Melbourne fans. For one thing, the Australian Open is marketed as "the slam of Asia/Pacific", and China counts as a near-neighbour by comparison with Belarus. For another, she is one of the few reliably humorous players on the tour, constantly cracking jokes in her broken English.

Most of them are at the expense of her long-suffering husband Jiang Shen, whose snoring usually gets a mention. After beating Maria Sharapova in the semi-final on Thursday, Li said: "Crown [the tournament hotel] give me a huge, bigger room. He still snore so I put him in another room."

This season, Li's husband has been downgraded from her coach to her hitting partner. She has beefed up her support staff by hiring Carlos Rodriguez, formerly Justine Henin's coach, and is now playing the best tennis of her life.

Li uses top-spin to put more shape on the ball than most of the women players, and it served her well against Sharapova when she made only 18 unforced errors, compared to 32 from her flatter-hitting opponent. She is more than capable of beating Azarenka today, even without the "ribgate" controversy to help her on.

 




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