Stephens falls flat against Azarenka
MELBOURNE, Australia -- Very little indicated that this was anything special, nothing much that demonstrated any real emotion, let alone a revenge factor at play in Monday's fourth-round match between two-time defending champion Victoria Azarenka and 20-year-old American Sloane Stephens at the Australian Open.
And Stephens clearly could have used something.
Instead, the No. 13 seed, who lost in last year's semifinal here to Azarenka following a controversial finish, went down quietly in another one-sided defeat to the No. 2 seed, this time 6-3, 6-2 in 1 hour, 31 minutes.
With the capacity crowd in Rod Laver Arena primed to jump on any momentum generated by Stephens after Azarenka's questionable 9-minute medical timeout in 2013 was roundly criticized here for perceived poor sportsmanship, fans were left as flat as Stephens' performance, which produced just two break-point opportunities while allowing 14.
That Azarenka capitalized on just two of those 14 mattered little as that was all she would need on a day in which Stephens committed 32 unforced errors (to 20 by her opponent) and seldom dictated play.
"I thought obviously she played well," Stephens said. "I played some good points. Her aggressiveness didn't affect my rhythm."
Azarenka did, however, win 13 of 17 points at the net, a trend she has demonstrated increasingly here. But asked if she thought Azarenka's versatility made her more dangerous, Stephens disagreed.
"No, I don't," she said rolling her eyes.
Azarenka, who has yet to lose a set in four matches, won her 18th straight here and even managed to ingratiate herself a bit to the lukewarm crowd with some glib on-court comments following the match.
"I just love to play here," said Azarenka, moving on to the quarterfinals against the winner of Agnieszka Radwanska-Garbine Muguruza. "The surroundings are so great here. It feels like home when I step on the court. Being in my living room on the couch feels like here. I could have chips and salsa, that's how it feels."
Azarenka was charitable in her assessment of the match, saying the score did not indicate how competitive it was.
"I never look at [the score]," she said. "I know how I felt out there. I felt like it was competitive. I just felt that I managed to pick it up on the important moments and really control the game."
While Stephens played admirably on defense, covering the court with her athleticism, offensively she simply was flat-footed. Stephens said she did not notice anything different in Azarenka's game.
"She's pretty steady," Stephens said. "She's obviously No. 2 in the world. She's consistent mentally. Physically, she's all in it. She's just a really tough competitor.
"I'm still working on things trying to get better. I thought I matched up pretty good with her today. Hopefully [I'll] work on a few more things and hopefully next time it will be the other way around."
Working with new coach Paul Annacone, who formerly coached Pete Sampras, Tim Henman and Roger Federer, it's too soon to tell what changes may be coming. Stephens has fallen into the trap of slow starts and on Monday, Azarenka broke in the third game and had three break points in the sixth game, which she squandered mostly of her own accord.
The closest the match came to any sort of drama was at 30-15, 4-2 Azarenka, when a shot by Stephens with both players at the net caught Azarenka in the mid-section. Stephens gave the hand-up tennis apology.
"That's tennis," Azarenka said later. "I'm just focused on the next point. Maybe she had an open court, but she chose that shot. I have no problem with that. I'm just focused on the next one."
Three points later, an Azarenka backhand whizzed past Stephens' right ear, and Stephens responded with a smile and applause.
If there was tension in this Grand Slam fourth-rounder, or even a heightened edge, Stephens dismissed the very suggestion.
"No, I think obviously there's always hype around matches like these because it's like last year, playing the semis and whatever. But not really," she said. "It's another match."
Maybe that was the problem.