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Azarenka avoids 'choke' in Australian semifinals

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By The Associated Press
Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013, 7:18 p.m.

MELBOURNE, Australia — Sloane Stephens sat for nine minutes, mostly staring at the court and trying to forget the curious timing of Victoria Azarenka's medical timeout.

The 19-year-old American had just saved five match points and broken Azarenka. But she knew she had to hold serve to stay in her first Grand Slam semifinal whenever Azarenka — the No. 1 player and defending Australian Open champion — returned to Rod Laver Arena.

The restless murmuring in the crowd gave way to slow claps. Why had Azarenka chosen that very moment for a medical break?

Azarenka eventually hustled onto the court, and Stephens won only three more points, losing 6-1, 6-4.

“I almost did the choke of the year,” Azarenka said in a frank admission during an on-court interview. “At 5-3, having so many chances, I couldn't close it out.”

Azarenka will face 2011 finalist Li Na in the final Saturday night.

Medical staff said Azarenka had timeouts for treatment of left knee and rib injuries. The rib needed to be manipulated because it was affecting her breathing. Tournament director Craig Tiley said Azarenka hadn't broken any rules.

Azarenka hadn't helped herself in a second television interview after the match when she said she couldn't breathe.

“I had chest pains,” she said. “It was like I was getting a heart attack.”

She tried to allay any negative perception with her explanation that the choking was related to shortness of breath from the rib injury, not her faltering game.

“When you cannot breathe you start to panic,” she said. “I was really panicking, not because I couldn't convert my match point. I mean, I'm experienced enough to go over those emotions. But when you cannot breathe, when something's really blocking you, the stress — that was the stress I was talking about.”

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