An over-zealous pedicurist has been fingered for disrupting the Australian Open preparation of defending champion Victoria Azarenka, who withdrew from Friday night's Brisbane International semi-final against Serena Williams after a minor medical procedure to remove an infected piece of nail from her right big toe.
Azarenka claimed to have suffered toe pain for the past 10 days, the last few while on antibiotics, before deciding to act to give herself the maximum recovery time ahead of Australian Open, starting on Monday week. Thus, the latest rematch between the US Open finalists was postponed for at least a fortnight, and Williams advanced directly to Saturday night's final against either Russian Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova or lucky loser Lesia Tsurenko of the Ukraine.
Azarenka, meanwhile hopes to resume hitting within two days, while claming to be confident there will be no impact on her grand slam preparation. "No, I'm not concerned about that. For me it's important that the procedure has been done and the worst already passed by. Just needs some time to get it better," said the 23-year-old, who explained her situation to the crowd on Pat Rafter Arena, then hit some autographed balls into the stands.
"It just got infected from a bad pedicure experience. I had somebody who gave me infection. Actually the doctor said it happens a lot... They cut a little bit too much and it got infected. And then from as much as we do, as much exercise, it's just been jamming into it and it's created an infection inside, created a little piece of nail to go in and always be hurting me."
Azarenka said the procedure had been a last resort, after medication and taping failed. "It's just something that I had to do to make sure that I can be fully recovered and ready for Australian Open. It's just very unfortunate timing, because I was really looking forward to playing and excited. But I'm also quite happy I had two matches in already, which was kind of the point to come here and get some matches. But the health is definitely something that's more important."
Injury concerns have now afflicted both the top seeds for the January 14-27 grand slam, with world No.2 Maria Sharapova withdrawing before her opening match in Brisbane due to an inflamed collarbone.
But, for Brisbane, it is nothing new. Last year, it was Kim Clijsters who suffered an injury blip ahead of her Australian Open title defence, the Belgian forced to retire during the second set of her semi-final against Daniela Hantuchova with a hip problem. Williams had damaged her ankle ligaments two rounds earlier, and, clearly less than 100 per cent recovered, failed to reach the quarter-finals at Melbourne Park.
The 15-time grand slam champion, who suffers from chronic foot issues and had minor surgery before Christmas, said she could empathise with Azarenka. "I like Vika. I think she's a great player. I love playing her. It sucks. I had that toe problem just a couple weeks ago and it's painful. God, it's so painful. Doesn't sound painful, but it is. You can't walk with that. I hope she gets better fast."
Once told of the walkover, Williams returned to the practice court and then the gym, ahead of her 62nd career final. "I've played three matches, so I feel really good for this tournament, and I'm happy to be in the final, obviously."
Cynics suggested Azarenka was ducking this latest meeting with her nemesis, but the Belarussian's disappointment seemed genuine. Either way, the withdrawal thwarted the first real power play of the women's summer, for Azarenka will be the top seed at Melbourne Park and Williams the title favourite. The American has won 11 of the pair's 12 contests, including all five last season, Azarenka claiming her only set in an epic decider at Flushing Meadows, where she got within two points of victory but failed to win another game after leading Williams 5-3 in the deciding set.