Defending champion Victoria Azarenka yesterday beat American teenager Sloane Stephens to set up an Australian Open final against Li Na, who ended Maria Sharapova’s record run at the Grand Slam tennis tournament.
Top-seeded Novak Djokovic continued his bid for a third straight Australian title by dropping only five games against David Ferrer, the No. 4 seed from Spain, in the first men’s semifinal yesterday. The Serb won 6-2, 6-2, 6-1.
No. 1 seed Azarenka, who broke through for her first major title 12 months ago in Melbourne, took a medical timeout after blowing five match points before defeating the 19-year-old 6-1, 6-4 at Rod Laver Arena, where Stephens ousted five-time champion Serena Williams in the quarterfinals.
“I almost did the choke of the year at 5-3 having so many chances,” Azarenka said in a televised on-court interview. “I couldn’t close it out. I just felt a little bit overwhelmed. Nerves got into me for sure.”
Djokovic will meet four-time champion Roger Federer or third-seeded Andy Murray in the Jan. 27 championship match. Federer and Murray play their semifinal today. Although the Scot leads 10-9, he’s yet to defeat Federer in a major.
Having almost gone out of the tournament in the fourth round against Switzerland’s Stanislas Wawrinka in a five-hour encounter, Djokovic played one of his best matches in Melbourne against Ferrer. The 25-year-old, who hasn’t won a major title in a year, outplayed the Spaniard from the start with drop shots, lobs and winners off both wings.
‘One of the Best’
“This is definitely one of the best performances I ever had in my career,” he said in a court-side interview. “I felt confident and comfortable from the start,” added Djokovic, who struck 30 winners, 19 more than Ferrer.
Djokovic made only 16 unforced errors, half that of his opponent, who won a Tour-leading seven events last season. The Serb won 91 percent of his first-service points and converted all of seven breakpoints. Ferrer had no break points and won 56 percent of his first-service points.
“I didn’t have a chance to win tonight,” Ferrer told reporters. “Novak was better in all the moments.”
Azarenka of Belarus will take a 5-4 lead in career meetings with Li into tomorrow’s championship match, having won their past four encounters.
As happened in her quarterfinal victory against Williams, Stephens was forced to wait around while her opponent received an off-court medical timeout. Azarenka was treated after missing five chances to win the match with unforced errors when serving for victory.
After returning to the court, Azarenka had a forehand winner to bring up her sixth match point, which she converted when Stephens hit a backhand long, her 42nd unforced error. Stephens lost seven of her nine service games.
While Azarenka’s motives for her timeout were questioned by television commentators, she said a locked rib was restricting her breathing and that she probably should have gotten treatment at 4-2 in the second set instead of trying to play through the pain.
“I really had to go and take that medical timeout,” Azarenka said in a news conference. “It was necessary thing for me to do. I just regret that I didn’t take it earlier. That it got to the point that it was pretty much impossible for me to breathe and to play.”
Asked by reporters if Azarenka had been guilty of gamesmanship and ought to apologize, Stephens said she considered the break a routine medical timeout that hadn’t contributed to her loss.
“I wouldn’t say at all what happened affected the match,” Stephens told reporters. “I did lose the next game, but I wouldn’t say that’s because of the medical timeout.”
Li, the No. 6 seed, earlier reached the final for the second time in three years by ousting second-seeded Sharapova. With the final coming exactly a month before her 31st birthday, Li would become the oldest woman to win the Australian Open since the professional era began in 1968.
Li is seeking her second major title after becoming the first Chinese player to win a Grand Slam singles championship at the French Open two years ago. She lost the 2011 final in Melbourne to Kim Clijsters of Belgium.
“Every time I am back in Australia I always feel something around with me,” Li said in a televised courtside interview. “I always play well here.”
After halting Agnieszka Radwanska’s run of 13 straight victories and 26 sets in a row in the quarterfinals, Li overpowered an opponent who had lost nine games en route to the final four, a record low for games lost since the Australian Open moved to a 128-player draw in 1988.
Sharapova, the 2008 champion, wasn’t helped by 32 unforced errors to 18 by Li, who struck four more winners and broke the Russian’s service five times during her 93-minute victory. Li missed her first match point when she put a forehand just wide then served an ace to bring up another, which she converted when Sharapova put a backhand into the net.
“She was aggressive, taking the first ball and doing something with it,” French Open champion Sharapova told reporters. “When I was trying to, I was making too many unforced errors.”
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