Azarenka sets up Li Na finale

World number one ends Sloane Stephen’s Melbourne Park fairytale as Li Na downs Sharapova in Australian Open semi-finals.

Victoria Azarenka
Azarenka was criticised for using a medical timeout to have a rib and knee injury checked just after wasting five match points – prompting accusations of 'showmanship' [AFP]

Victoria Azarenka had to endure some anxious moments before and after her win over American teenager Sloane Stephens. Li Na wasn’t flustered at all as she beat No. 2-ranked Maria Sharapova.

The result is that Li will play for the Australian Open title against Azarenka, who ended an unexpected run to the semi-finals by Stephens that included a quarter-final upset win over 15-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams.

While Li’s 6-2, 6-2 win over Sharapova, who had dropped only nine games in five matches – a tournament record – en route to the semis, never appeared in doubt on Thursday, Azarenka added some intrigue in the second semi-final on Rod Laver Arena.

Azarenka finished off a 6-1, 6-4 over Stephens after a lengthy medical timeout for a rib injury which hindered her breathing. The No. 1-ranked Belarusian player had wasted five match points in the game immediately before the medical time out, then returned to break Stephens’ serve to end the match.

Under pressure

“Well, I almost did the choke of the year,” Azarenka told an on-court interviewer immediately after the match.

“At 5-3, having so many chances I couldn’t close it out.”

Tournament officials said the tournament doctor reported that Azarenka had left knee and rib injuries.

“I just felt a little bit overwhelmed. I realised I’m one step away from the final and nerves got into me for sure,” Azarenka said.

There was speculation about the impact of the timing of Azarenka’s medical treatment. The 23-year-old Belarusian didn’t help her case by saying in a second television interview following the match that she’d had difficulty breathing.

“I couldn’t breathe. I had chest pains,” she said.

“It was like I was getting a heart attack. After that it wasn’t my best but it’s important to overcome this little bit of a struggle and win the match.”

In her official post-match news conference – more than an hour after she finished playing – Azarenka said she felt a need to explain the disparity between the facts as she saw them and her comments immediately after the match.

“I think I just really misunderstood what (the on-court interviewer) asked me because the question was I had few difficulties and why I went off,” Azarenka said.

“I completely thought of a different thing, why I couldn’t close out of match, you know, that I had few difficulties.

“So I understand the whole situation right now, but it just really (is a) simple misunderstanding of a question. I guess it was my bad.”

Pressed again to explain her earlier TV comments, Azarenka said:

“I did say that. I did say I couldn’t breathe. It was locked. That came from my back.”

Stephens didn’t think the timing of the medical break had any real impact on the match.

“It’s happened before. Last match, match before, I’ve had people going for medical breaks, going to the bathroom,” she said.

“Didn’t affect me. Just another something else that happens.”

Hot encounter

China’s Li Na downed Sharapova to reach the final for the second time in three years [AFP]

The temperature hit 97 degrees during the second women’s semi-final, slightly hotter than it had been when Li beat Sharapova to reach the Australian Open final for the second time in three years.

The semi-final started badly for the 25-year-old Russian, serving double-faults to lose the first two points and conceding a break in the first game.

Li was the first Chinese player to reach a Grand Slam final when she lost to Kim Clijsters at Melbourne Park in 2011. She had her breakthrough a few months later when she won the French Open, beating Sharapova in the semi-finals along the way.

The crowd got behind Li early in the match, yelling “Come on, Li Na!” and others yelling “Jia You!” which is “Come on” in Chinese. After she broke Sharapova to take a 5-2 lead, the Chinese fans in the crowd shook Chinese flags and shouted again, “Jia You!”

“I don’t know what happened (but) I always play well here, so thanks guys,” said Li, who was playing her third Australian Open semi-final in four years. “I just came to the court feeling like, ‘OK, just do it.”’

The heat and the speed of the court surface suited Li’s game.

She broke Sharapova in the third game of the second set and served an ace to move within a point of a 4-2 lead, but lost the next three points to give her opponent a break opportunity.

Two big second serves took Sharapova by surprise, and Li fended off the challenge.

Li’s coach, Carlos Rodriguez – who worked with retired seven-time major winner Justine Henin – pumped his fist over his heart after Li won the game.

Sharapova had control in her next service game, but Li scrambled from side to side and pushed the reigning French Open champion to go for the lines, getting a series of unforced errors and another break.

The sixth-seeded Li has been working since August with Rodriguez, and credits him with reviving her career with a renewed emphasis on condition.

“I’m happy. I know I have a tough coach, a tough physio,” Li said, looking across to the stands and adding: “You don’t need to push me anymore. I will push myself.”

Sharapova, who lost the 2012 Australian final in straight sets to Azarenka, admitted it was hard to get into the match against Li.

“She was certainly much more aggressive than I was, dictating the play. I was always on the defence,” said Sharapova, who could have gained the No. 1 ranking by reaching the Australian final.

“When I had my opportunities and break points in games that went to deuce, I don’t think any of them really went my way.”

Source: AP