Open loses one of its top contenders
NEW YORK -- The oppressive heat at the National Tennis Center took many top players to the edge of their limits Tuesday.
On Wednesday morning, with on-court temperatures simmering beyond 100 degrees, Victoria Azarenka left her match in a wheelchair.
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Azarenka, trailing Gisela Dulko 5-1, lashed a backhand down the line, skittered back to the center of the court -- then, like a punch-drunk boxer, collapsed a few feet behind the baseline, apparently unconscious.
The No. 10 seed, amid the 93-degree heat, which was measured on court at 104 degrees, was immediately surrounded by medical personnel, as well as a concerned Dulko. After several minutes, Azarenka was taken off the Grandstand Court. One official supported her head as she was wheeled off. She was later taken to the hospital in an ambulance.
It was widely assumed that Azarenka was a victim of heat stroke, but there was another factor, too. Later, in a statement, Azarenka said she had been diagnosed with a mild concussion.
"I was warming up in the gym prior to my match against Gisela Dulko when I fell while running a sprint," her statement said. "I fell forward and hit my arm and head. I was checked by the medical team before I went on court and they were courtside for monitoring. I felt worse as the match went on, having a headache and feeling dizzy. I also started having trouble seeing and felt weak before I fell."
Dulko advanced to the third round when the match ended after 34 minutes.
Azarenka was considered one of the favorites and in some minds the favorite; ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert picked the 21-year-old Belarusian to win.
She came into the U.S. Open as one of the hottest players on the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour. Azarenka won the title a month ago in Stanford, beating Samantha Stosur in the semifinals and Maria Sharapova in the final. She retired from her semifinal match with Vera Zvonareva in Montreal, complaining of a foot blister.
In the past, Azarenka and the heat have had an uneasy relationship.
In the 2009 Australian Open, she retired in a fourth-round match to Serena Williams under eerily similar circumstances. With the air temperature at 104 degrees and the on-court temperature much hotter, Azarenka started wobbling in the second set. Trailing 4-2, she stopped the match and almost fell into Williams' arms at the net. She was helped to her changeover chair.
This haunting image was the backdrop when Azarenka started poorly against Dulko, a feisty Argentine player who had beaten her in their two previous matches. Trailing 3-0, only nine minutes into the match, Azarenka seemed disoriented and distraught and called for a trainer and doctor. Her lips were trembling and there were tears in her eyes.
Still, she went back onto the court, and serving at 0-4, actually whiffed on a serve; her racket swept well under the ball, which landed on her back. Somehow, she won the game before Dulko took a 5-1 lead.
At 15-30 in the seventh game, Azarenka staggered and hit the ground even before Dulko's shot into the open court fell for a winner. Her large ponytail significantly cushioned what might have been a harsh blow to the head.
"It was terrible," said Dulko, who brought Azarenka ice as she was being attended to. "I was scared to see something like that. I felt I had to do something to help her."
The conditions, Dulko allowed, were difficult.
"It's really hot, really humid," she said. "Sometimes it's impossible to hold the racket."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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