Azarenka is a vastly more experienced player than 19-year-old Stephens, but she denied gamesmanship of any type by asking for medical help for a breathing problem in the middle of a clutch of match points.
Azarenka is trying to defend both her Australian Open title and the No. 1 world ranking.
But the 23-year-old did agree her timing was unfortunate as it came after she had failed to convert five match points in the 10th game of the second set when leading 5-4.
“The timing, it was bad,” Azarenka admitted. “The game before that when I lost my service, it kept getting worse,” she said.
“I thought I would have to play through it and keep calm. But it just got worse. I had to do it. I had to unlock my rib, which was causing my back problem. You know, the trainer said, ‘We have to go off court to treat that’. I just didn’t really want to take off my dress on the court.”
Azarenka spoke of nerves after the match, but never mentioned her back, which led critics to imply she had taken the medical time-out as a ploy to distract Stephens.
In the next game, Stephens served to try to stay in the match. But on Azarenka’s sixth match point the young American netted a backhand and it was all over 6-1 6-4. Azarenka said the discrepancy in her answers came down to a “simple misunderstanding”.
“I think I just really misunderstood what she asked me because the question was ‘I had few difficulties’ and why I went off. I completely thought of a different thing,” she said.
Azarenka did say she should have sought medical attention earlier but did not feel the need to apologise.
“Apology? I don’t know if that’s apology. For the timing, I cannot be in control how long it takes to fix my injury,” she said.
“They wanted to take two medical time-outs, for the knee and for that. But I wanted to take one because I wanted to go back on court.”
Stephens, who had beaten Serena Williams in Wednesday’s quarter-final, said she was not affected by the time-out but her coach David Nainkin was less understanding: “I thought it was very unfair, cheating within the rules. It was unsportsmanlike,” he said.
Top seed Azarenka will meet China’s sixth seed Li Na in tomorrow’s final.