By Stephen R. Schwartz
Special to tennischannel.com
The difference between "class" and "crass," is but a single letter. Its meanings, however, could not be more polar opposite.
At the year's first major - The Australian Open - crass came from one of the most unexpected places. It occurred during the second set of the women's semi-final match between world #1 Victoria Azarenka and 19-year-old American upstart, Sloane Stephens.
In the previous round, Stephens did the unimaginable - she knocked-off Serena Williams. Azarenka - who like the rest of the tennis world, figured Williams would be her next opponent - must have breathed a sigh of relief when Stephens pulled the upset, as Azarenka often has difficulty beating Williams. When Azarenka breezed 6-1 in the opening set and started the second up 2-0, she surely anticipated a walk-in-the-park from there.
The only problem was, Sloane Stephens didn't get that memo. Like she had done the night prior against Serena, Stephens lost the first set and was down 2-0 in the second, when she elevated her game.
Suddenly,she was matching Azarenka's power, ground-strokes and spraying winners. Leading 5-3 and serving for the match, Azarenka had 5- count 'em - 5 match points before finally being broken by Stephens. It was during this stretch when Azarenka began taking the heat and was life-and-death to stick a fork in the pesky Stephens.
With the combatants now back on serve, Azarenka summoned the trainer, who appeared to be working on some breathing issues Azarenka was having.
Look, I'm no doctor, but Azarenka appeared to be having - what's commonly known as in non-medical terms - a panic attack.
Did Azarenka harken back a few years before when she suffered from heat stroke on the same court and had to be carried off? Was the combination of searing heat and failure to close out the match five times before being broken, too daunting for Azarenka to endure? Maybe she was thinking that Stephens would do to her what she had done to Williams 24 hours earlier.
After being tended to by the trainer, Azarenka left the court and returned to the ocker room for ten minutes, leaving a stunned Stephens sitting on-court,staring and not moving a muscle the entire time.Curiously, Stephens draped towels over herself even though the temperature was nearly 100 degrees.
I can't say for sure if getting a ten-minute break to cool off and chill, while your opponent sat still in sweltering heat was any help, but I'm sure it didn't hurt any.When Azarenka returned and play resumed, she broke Stephens - who had clearly lost her momentum - and won the match.The savvy Aussie fans in attendance at Rod Laver Stadium we eerily quiet as Azarenka exulted. The smell of rotten fish clearly consumed the sultry Australian night time air.
Following the match, Azarenka was interviewed at center court. It was here that"class" could have and should have, prevailed, but it was"crass, " instead, that reared its ugly head. The first words out of Azarenka's mouth were, "I almost made the biggest choke ever."
She talked about having five match points and not converting one, as if Stephens and her brilliant shot-making ability had nothing to do with that.She never once mentioned Stephens by name, nor the incredible grit she displayed.
It was classless.
And suddenly, one of my personal favorites, quickly got knocked down a few pegs from her bubbly, adorable perch.
I hate when that happens.
Go, Li Na!