(Reuters) - Sloane Stephens was keen to swat away any references to a controversial clash against Victoria Azarenka at last year’s Australian Open as the American advanced to a possible fourth-round clash against the two-times champion on Monday.
”I don’t even remember half the stuff that happened,“ the 20-year-old said when questioned about a possible showdown with Azarenka after she had beaten Ukraine’s Elina Svitolina 7-5 6-4 in the third round on Saturday. ”It’s okay.
”Last year has nothing to do with this year. It’s a totally different year. A lot of things have happened.
“So, you know, I‘m just looking forward to getting back on the court ... hopefully on the big court. It will be exciting.”
Azarenka, who was playing Austria’s Yvonne Meusburger later on Saturday, was accused of at best gamesmanship, at worst cheating, when she played Stephens in last year’s semi-finals at Melbourne Park.
Leading by a set and 5-4, the defending champion had just missed five match points when she took a 10-minute timeout, leaving her teenage opponent to sit and wait.
When she returned, the Belarussian broke Stephens to clinch a 6-1 6-4 victory and a place in the final.
As jeers rang out around Rod Laver Arena, Azarenka compounded matters by making a bizarre courtside speech.
“I almost did the choke of the year,” she said. “At 5-3 I had so many chances but I couldn’t close it out. I felt a little bit overwhelmed that I was close to another final.”
Azarenka later explained in a media conference she had misunderstood the question and had been battling a rib injury that affected her breathing.
Stephens, who had upset Serena Williams in the quarter-finals to face Azarenka for the place in the final, graciously said she felt the timeout had not been a factor in her loss.
“Looking back on it I don’t think that affected anything too much, but I definitely know, if I was in the same position, which I am - obviously not in the semis - but I know what I have to do.,” Stephens said On Saturday.
“I have to play my game and focus on myself and focus on what I do best.”
Stephens, still then a teenager, used her Australian Open experience to launch a breakthrough year on the WTA tour.
She reached the fourth round or better at each of the grand slams, finished it ranked a career-high 12th and felt her Australian Open semi-final had proved to be an important lesson.
“Obviously semis of a grand slam it was pretty intense ... it was definitely a learning experience for me,” she said.
”I don’t get flustered as easily and (that is) something I have worked on.
“I don’t get overwhelmed and I‘m kind of just learning to focus on myself, because that’s the only thing I can control, like the things that I do.”
Reporting by Greg Stutchbury in Wellington; Editing by Nick Mulvenney