Victoria Azarenka has won the right to defend her Australian Open title in Saturday's final, but few friends for the controversial tactics that helped get her there.
The world No 1 took a lengthy medical time-out for what sounded suspiciously like a panic attack as she struggled to close out her semi-final against American teenager Sloane Stephens on Rod Laver Arena, before later blaming a rib injury for her shortness of breath.
The incident caused a storm on social media, the Belarusian branded a cheat and a coward, among other unflattering descriptions, while accused of gamesmanship by several former players. She left the court for almost 10 minutes after Stephens had broken back for 4-5 in the second set, Azarenka clearly agitated after having blown five match points. She returned to win 6-1, 6-4 with her sixth, the crowd reaction tellingly subdued.
Asked on court about her supposed injury, Azarenka replied: ''I almost did the choke of the year right now. At 5-3, after so many chances, I couldn't close it out.''
She said she felt ''a little bit overwhelmed ... nerves got to me, for sure.'' No mention of a health issue that was anything but mental.
In a subsequent interview with US broadcaster ESPN, Azarenka reiterated that she needed some time to calm herself. ''I couldn't breathe, that game I just had chest pains, it was like I was having a heart attack or something out there. I just needed to make sure it was OK. I really couldn't breathe.''
And later, during a sustained and uncomfortable grilling in her news conference, Azarenka claimed she was the victim of both a misunderstanding over her on-court question and a locked rib that caused a back problem and her shortage of breath. She regretted only that she had not called the trainer earlier.
''It got to the point that it was pretty much impossible for me to breathe and to play,'' she said. ''The timing, yeah, it was my bad. The game before that when I lost my service game, it kept getting worse. I thought I would have to play through it and keep calm. But it just got worse. You know, I had to do it.''
Azarenka said she had misinterpreted the query over her condition from Channel Seven's Sam Smith. ''The question was I had few difficulties and why I went off,'' she explained. ''I completely thought of a different thing, why I couldn't close out of match, you know, that I had few difficulties. So I understand the whole situation right now, but it [was] just really simple misunderstanding of a question.''
Still, American commentator Pam Shriver was among those to claim that Azarenka had acted outside the rules of the game. ''You can't just leave the court for 10 minutes because you're having a panic attack'', she said, while Andre Agassi's former coach Brad Gilbert concurred.
''She basically panicked, she was choking, so basically she was just buying some time to clear her head,'' he said. ''It looked like a bit of gamesmanship to me.''
The 18-time major winner Chris Evert, said the condition was not an injury, but ''what a lot of people go through when trying to get into the finals of a grand slam. That's a little unfair''.
Stephens, though, was gracious about the interruption, questioning neither its impact on the result or the legitimacy of its cause. Would she be bothered if it was nerves, rather a tweaked ankle or sore knee, and thus strategic rather than legitimate?
''I mean, [it's] just another something else that happens,'' Stephens said. ''It didn't affect anything, I don't think.''
Tournament director Craig Tiley said Azarenka had received treatment for a rib injury and then on her knee, "which she had tweaked a little bit in the second set".
"In this instance, the doctor confirmed that he did treat the rib, he did treat the knee, and once he made that assessment, she was able and ready to continue to play. On our initial assessment on this, and also on advice from the doctor, it's correct," he said.
Mr Tiley said Australian Open staff had handled the situation appropriately. "Certainly we have a grand slam supervisor on every court and it's their job to ensure that the rules are upheld and the spirit of the game is adhered to, and in this case our supervisor assessed that, and together with the trainer and the medical practitioner, they were satisfied that it was," he said.
- The Age