Azarenka, Stephens set for Australian rematch
Sloane Stephens believes she's changed a lot in the year since her Australian Open semifinal loss to Victoria Azarenka - a match that became clouded in controversy when the Belarussian took a medical timeout after wasting five match points, halting Stephens' momentum.
Stephens said she doesn't get flustered as easily now and she's not overwhelmed by matches on the big stages. She's also learning to focus on herself and tune out distractions on the other side of the net.
In short, she's ready for a rematch against Azarenka.
The second-seeded Azarenka and 13th-seeded Stephens set up a meeting in the fourth round at this year's Australian Open with straight-set wins on Saturday.
Azarenka, the two-time defending champion, needed just an hour to dispatch Austrian Yvonne Meusburger 6-1 6-0, while Stephens had a more challenging time in her 7-5 6-4 win over Elina Svitolina of Ukraine.
The two haven't played since last year's contentious semifinal. Stephens characterised their off-court relationship as "nonexistent."
While last year's match was not particularly close - Azarenka won it 6-1 6-4 - it certainly didn't lack for drama. Azarenka was serving for the match at 5-3 in the second set when Stephens saved five match points and broke serve, prompting a clearly flustered Azarenka to call a medical timeout. She returned after nine minutes and promptly finished off the match.
Immediately afterward, Azarenka said in an on-court interview that she almost committed the "choke of the year." Although she later said she misunderstood the question about the timeout. The medical staff reported that the timeout was to treat Azarenka's left knee and rib injuries, not her breathing.
Neither Stephens nor Azarenka wanted to revisit the subject after their third-round matches on Saturday.
"I don't even remember half the stuff that happened," Stephens said. "Looking back on it, I don't think that affected anything too much."
Azarenka was even less willing to discuss it.
"We left it all last year here, and that's what is important for me, is to play another match," she said. "I'm looking forward to that match."
Azarenka has won all three of her matches at this year's Australian Open in straight sets, though she was tested by Sweden's Johanna Larsson in the first round. She knows she will have to lift her game against a vastly improved Stephens, who has cracked the top 15 in the rankings and hired Roger Federer's former coach, Paul Annacone.
Stephens made it to the fourth round or better at all four majors last year - joining Serena Williams and Agnieszka Radwanska as the only women's players to do that.
"She proved that she can handle big stages. She can play against top players," Azarenka said of Stephens. "It's always going to be tough when a player like that knows how to handle themselves."
And while Stephens concedes that Azarenka has more experience, she says she's better prepared now, too.
"Last year has nothing to do with this year," she said. "It's a new match."