* American to clash with champion Azarenka in fourth round
* Both players steer clear of last year’s semi-final controversy (Writes through, adds byline)
By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE, Jan 18 (Reuters) - Victoria Azarenka was understandably keen to look forward to an Australian Open rematch with Sloane Stephens in the fourth round rather than look back at their controversial semi-final at Melbourne Park last year.
Azarenka, who humiliated Austria’s Yvonne Meusburger 6-1 6-0 in the evening session at Hisense Arena on Saturday, was slammed last year for taking a 10-minute medical time-out after blowing five match-points against the young American.
Returning to the court, the Belarusian broke Stephens to clinch a 6-1 6-4 victory and compounded matters by telling the courtside interviewer she “almost did the choke of the year.”
“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,” she said.
Accused of gamesmanship and by some of overt cheating, Azarenka later told a media conference she had been battling a rib injury that affected her breathing.
She nonetheless faced one of the most hostile crowds for a final at Rod Laver Arena when she sealed her title defence against China’s Li Na.
“I have great memories of last year. That’s all I keep for me,” Azarenka told reporters of last year’s match.
“We left it all last year here, and that’s what is important for me.”
Asked what she had learned from the experience, she added: ”Nothing. I don’t know there’s anything to learn.
”I mean, it was just a great experience for me to be playing in the final and winning the title.
“That’s what I learned, I guess. Just learned how to win the second grand slam.”
Second seed Azarenka sealed the Meusburger match with a thundering smash at the net to end a thoroughly one-sided contest and heads into her clash with Stephens riding a 17-match winning streak.
Though many felt her wronged last year, Stephens was also keen to swat away the controversy.
”I don’t even remember half the stuff that happened,“ the 20-year-old said after beating Ukraine’s Elina Svitolina 7-5 6-4 earlier 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.”
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.
“I have to play my game and focus on myself and focus on what I do best.”
Stephens’ Melbourne Park semi-final launched a breakthrough year on the WTA tour in 2013.
She reached the fourth round or better at each of the grand slams and finished the year ranked a career-high 12th.
“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.” (Additional reporting by Greg Stutchbury in Wellington; Editing by Nick Mulvenney and Pritha Sarkar)