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By Chris Oddo

Victoria Azarenka US Open (September 7, 2012) – After an excruciating two hour, forty-two minute slugfest had finally come to an end, Victoria Azarenka dropped her racquet and put her hands on her head as if to say "I can't believe it."

Oh, but she did believe, and in the end it was the belief that made the difference in a nerve-wracking 3-6, 6-2, 6-4 victory over one of the game‘s most feared players.

With the electrifying win over Maria Sharapova, Azarenka reached her first career U.S. Open final and second Grand Slam final of 2012, setting the stage for a much anticipated final with Serena Williams with player of the year accolades likely on the line.

Williams, a three-time US Open champion, cruised easily against the Italian Sara Errani in Friday’s other semifinal. The 6-1, 6-2  drubbing was yet another high-powered performance from the women that most have pegged as the favorite throughout the tournament.

Williams was all business on Friday, finishing off the feel good Italian in 64 minutes, hammering nine aces while not facing a break point.

Errani, the first Italian woman to reach the US Open semifinals since the Open Era began, had no answer for the 14-time Grand Slam champion. Williams blasted 38 winners to just 6 for Errani, and any time the Italian had a small window to gain some momentum, Williams was there to slam that window shut with a resounding thud, and a fist-pump to boot.

What the Williams-Errani semifinal lacked in drama, Azarenka and Sharapova more than made up for in their epic struggle.

In a spirited, hard-hitting affair that had the rafters at Arthur Ashe Stadium rocking on Friday, Azarenka improved her record in third sets to a sparkling 12-0 in 2012. In the process the 23-year-old also put the kibosh on Maria Sharapova's run of eleven straight third-set victories.

Sharapova, true to form, made things difficult all day for Azarenka. The tenth career meeting between these longtime rivals, billed as a battle of two of the most mentally tough women in tennis today, did not disappoint.

Yet, in spite of all the great expectations, it looked like it might be all Sharapova from the start. The Russian came out on fire, ripping winners all over the court and taking a commanding 5-1 lead before Azarenka could muster any kind of a reply.

Azarenka managed only 1 winner in the first set against 10 for Sharapova, but the World No. 1 started to find her range in set two.

After falling behind a break, the feisty Belarusian broke back and reeled off four straight games to lead 4-1. Meanwhile, the level of shotmaking increased along with the quality and intensity of the rallies.

Sharapova threatened to get the second set back on serve with Azarenka serving at 4-2, but she couldn't convert on either of the two break points that she saw.

Sensing the opportunity, Azarenka broke again to close out the set and level the match at one set apiece.
 
Thanks to the balmy New York afternoon that featured high humidity and no cloud cover, the players broke for a 10-minute intermission between the second and third sets. Both players left the court for a spell, with Azarenka returning before Sharapova to hit practice serves to kill the time.

Strange as the tactic looked, the extra serves seemed to help Azarenka. She would finish the match losing only eight points on serve in the final set, and she did not face a break point in the decider against the fierce Sharapova return game.

Meanwhile Sharapova, who served horribly at times and brilliantly at others during the match, faced relentless pressure from the Azarenka return game. The Russian did a great job of making first serves down the stretch, but when she didn’t Azarenka made her pay.

The Belarusian pushed Sharapova to deuce in each of her first four service games, but failed on three break point opportunities, as Sharapova time and time again came up with huge serves and monster ground strokes to dig herself out of trouble.

Serving to stay in the match qt 4-5, however, proved to be too much for Sharapova. Her trademark grittiness was ever present as she dug out of love-30 hole in the tenth game, and also when she saved her first match point moments later. But when Azarenka landed a perfectly placed forehand that kissed the outside of the line to earn a second match point, there was no stopping her on the ensuing point.

“In the end if I lost at least I’d know I gave it all,” said a euphoric Azarenka afterwards. “I guess that worked for me to pull it out.”

As far as the final is concerned, Azarenka is ready to roll.

“First final, I’m so excited,” she said. “I don’t want to leave, I want to play the final already. I guess I’ll have to wait a little.”

Williams holds a 9-1 career edge against Azarenka and has won seven in a row since losing since summer of 2009. 

(Photo Credit: AFP/Patrick Kovarik)

 

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