Grudge match looms for comeback queen Victoria Azarenka
Two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka faces a first-round grudge match against American Sloane Stephens as she seeks to resurrect her career at the opening Grand Slam of the season.
Melbourne: Two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka faces a first-round grudge match against American Sloane Stephens as she seeks to resurrect her career at the opening Grand Slam of the season.
The showdown on Tuesday is certain to revive memories of one of the most controversial episodes in the tournament`s recent history.
In 2013, Azarenka defeated Stephens in the semi-final after taking a 12-minute medical timeout that halted a barnstorming comeback by the American.
Azarenka admitted after the match that "I almost did the choke of the year" and needed time to recompose herself, leading to allegations she faked an injury to halt play and stall Stephens` momentum.
John McEnroe, commentating on television, called her antics "an absolute travesty", while the New York Times railed against "a timeout jeered around the world".
Australian fans also turned on Azarenka, who had already tried their patience with her high-decibel screeching, subjecting her to jeers and boos during her final against the popular Li Na of China.
The Melbourne Park crowd greeted her eventual win over Li with stony silence and Azarenka admitted last week that she was unsure whether spectators would give her a hostile reception at this year`s event.
"I can`t control it, it would be silly if they do," she said.
Stephens drily noted after the match that it was becoming "trendy" for her opponents to call timeouts at crucial moments but has since steered away from commenting on the controversy.
At the time, she was a rising star who appeared set to break into the top 10 and lead a new generation to take over the American mantle from the Williams sisters.
But she has never again advanced so far in a Grand Slam and goes into this year`s Open ranked 32 in the world.
Circumstances are also vastly different for Azarenka, who since 2013 has slipped from number one to 44 after enduring a string of injuries that cut short her 2014 season and left the 25-year-old battling depression.
Bookmakers have installed Azarenka, the Australian Open winer in 2012 and 2013, as the favourite to eliminate Stephens, although she is considered a long shot to actually win the tournament.