MELBOURNE (REUTERS) - Victoria Azarenka defended herself against a storm of criticism on Thursday after she took a medical time-out at a crucial stage of her Australian Open semi-final victory over teenager Sloane Stephens.
Azarenka's surge into the final against China's Li Na was overshadowed by a controversial 10-minute break when she left Rod Laver Arena for treatment on a rib complaint that was giving her back pain and breathing difficulties.
When she left the court, the Belarusian had just blown five match points, and America's Stephens, 19, was left waiting to serve to stay in it. When Azarenka returned, she broke the teenager to win 6-1, 6-4 in 1hr 41min.
Immediately after the match, the defending champion said she had avoided "the choke of the year" and "felt a bit overwhelmed", sparking suspicions she had called for the time-out to gather her thoughts.
Azarenka was accused of gamesmanship by respected commentator Pam Shriver and her colleague at ESPN, Patrick McEnroe, called it an "absolute travesty" on Twitter.
But the 23-year-old world No. 1 maintained the injury was legitimate, saying: "It was a necessary thing for me to do. I just regret that I didn't take it earlier, that it got to the point that it was pretty much impossible for me to breathe and to play."