American teenager Sloane Stephens fought back to beat an injured Serena Williams yesterday at the Australian Open, setting up a semifinal against defending women’s champion Victoria Azarenka in Melbourne.
Four-time winner Roger Federer of Switzerland and third- seeded Andy Murray of Britain got past Frenchmen Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Jeremy Chardy and will meet tomorrow for a place in the final. Murray leads Federer 10-9 in career meetings.
Stephens, at 19 the youngest player remaining in either draw, won the all-U.S. quarterfinal 3-6, 7-5, 6-4 at Rod Laver Arena to end Williams’s 20-match winning streak and reach the final four at a Grand Slam tennis tournament for the first time.
“This is so crazy,” the 29th-seeded Stephens, who had a poster of Williams on her bedroom wall while growing up, said in a televised courtside interview. “I think I need a poster of myself now.”
The third-seeded Williams, 31, who entered the tournament as bookmakers’ favorite to win a sixth Australian Open title, needed treatment after suffering a back spasm in the eighth game of the second set. She’d been seeking her third straight major singles championship and 16th overall after winning Wimbledon and the U.S. Open last year.
Second-seeded Federer slugged it out with former runner-up Tsonga in a match full of momentum swings, 7-6 (7-4), 4-6, 7-6 (7-4), 3-6, 6-3 to move to his tenth consecutive Australian Open semifinal.
“I feel a bit lucky to come through,” Federer, a 17-time Grand Slam champion, said in a court-side interview after he won with a smash on his fifth match point. “It was a tough close, the whole match was tough. Any set could have gone either way.”
The 31-year-old from Switzerland, who hadn’t dropped a set until the quarterfinals, produced 49 winners, compared to 66 for Tsonga. The Frenchman had 61 unforced errors, while Federer struck 47.
Today’s semifinals line-up includes second-seeded Maria Sharapova of Russia against Li Na of China, the No. 6 seed, followed by Stephens against Azarenka of Belarus. Men’s defending champion Novak Djokovic of Serbia faces Spain’s David Ferrer. Temperatures are forecast to reach 36 degrees Celsius (97 degrees Fahrenheit) in Melbourne.
Williams had a troubled run through the season-opening major. She rolled her ankle in her opening match and bloodied her lip with her racket in the second round. Against Stephens, she jarred her back when trying to avoid hitting the net, and was forced to take a medical timeout. When she returned, her service speed dropped and she struggled on backhand shots.
“I totally locked up after that,” Williams said in a news conference. “It was a little painful. It was hard to rotate to the backhand. I’m already on anti-inflammatories for my ankle, so you can’t do too much more.”
She said it had been the worst two weeks she’d experienced in her 50 appearances at the sport’s four major events.
“I’m almost relieved that it’s over because there’s only so much I felt I could do,” Williams added. “I’ve been thrown a lot of balls these two weeks.”
In a match in which each player hit 23 winners, Stephens committed nine fewer unforced errors and held her composure in the deciding set after Williams broke serve to go up 4-3. It was Stephens’s first career win against a top-10 player.
Stephens, whose best performance in her six previous appearances at majors was the fourth round of the French Open last year, said not allowing herself to get distracted by Williams’s injury was a key to her win.
“In the last three weeks it’s happened to me a lot, so I was prepared,” Stephens, who lost to Williams when they met in Brisbane three weeks ago, told reporters. “I just tried to stay focused on myself, stay within myself, because otherwise it would have been a disaster.”
Stephens, the daughter of late former New England Patriots running back John Stephens, is the first American teenager to reach the semifinals of a Grand Slam since Williams did it at the 2001 U.S. Open.
Top-seeded Azarenka, who broke through for her first major title 12 months ago in Melbourne, earlier won a 77-minute opening set en route to a 7-5, 6-1 win against unseeded Svetlana Kuznetsova of Russia.
“In the beginning, I needed a little bit of adjustment because she has a very different game,” said Azarenka, a 23- year-old from Belarus. “I’m glad I could produce my best tennis when it was needed.”
While she’s never played Stephens before, Azarenka said she’s been impressed by the teenager.
“Her game has come together,” said Azarenka, who needs to win the tournament to keep her No. 1 ranking. “She has a good potential. It’s just a matter of her getting all those details in place and really wanting to achieve great things.”
In the final day match at Rod Laver Arena, U.S. Open champion Murray cruised past the unseeded Chardy 6-4, 6-1, 6-2 to reach the final four at Melbourne Park for the fourth straight year.
“I’ve done a good job so far in this tournament,” said Murray, the runner-up in 2010 and 2011. “I can’t be disappointed with where my game’s at. Hope the next round I play better again.”
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