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Azarenka Panics as Li Pounces in AO Semis

With two very different performances, Victoria Azarenka and Li Na booked their spots into Saturday's Australian Open Women's Finals.

By Erik Gudris

Li Na Australian Open (January 23, 2012) -- With two very different performances in the women's semis, Victoria Azarenka and Li Na found a way to win as they advanced to the Australian Open finals.

No. 6 seed Li Na was the underdog to No. 2 seed Maria Sharapova not only because the Chinese -- and former finalist -- trailed in the pair's overall head-to-head record but also because of Sharapova's near-perfect form in Melbourne: Sharapova had dropped only nine games on her way to the semifinals.

Sharapova opened the match with a messy service game that set the tone for the rest of the afternoon. Li broke to gain the early lead and also found success with both her first and second serves. Sharapova's form continued to waver as she found herself down 1-4.

For Li to win the match, she had to not only stay with Sharapova in the rallies, she also had to keep the unforced errors -- which she's notorious for amassing -- down to a minimum. The former French Open champion did just that by committing only 10 errors in the 6-2 set, which she won in just under an hour.

Sharapova came out fighting in the second set, pressuring Li early with break point chances. But it was Li's own relentless return game -- backed up by her ability to keep Sharapova on the run in the rallies -- that gave Li the first break for 3-2.

Struggling to claw back into the match, Sharapova looked poised to break back but it was Li, with clutch serving, who extended her lead to 4-2. Another break of serve for Li allowed her to serve for the finals. Though she missed on her first opportunity, it was a netted backhand from Sharapova on the second match point that clinched the 6-2, 6-2 win for Li.

When asked if she played as perfect a match as she could have, that included hitting 21 winners and 18 unforced errors, Li said, " Yeah, always hopefully. But after I was play after 20 years, first time in my life, you know. 
Beginning of the match I was nervous. I was happy I come back to semis again, but for some reason I really want to win the match.  Don't know what happened today. Just come to the court, feeling like, Okay, just do it."

Li now returns to the Australian Open finals for the second time in her career having lost in the 2011 finals to Kim Clijsters.

Anxious Azarenka Advances Over Stephens

Top seed and defending champion Victoria Azarenka faced off against surprise semifinalist Sloane Stephens in a match that was short on great shotmaking but went too long in unnecessary drama especially in its final stages.

Azarenka broke Stephens to open the match and from there the American teenager had a difficult time dealing with Azarenka's superior point construction and topspin groundstrokes on both sides. Stephens held game points in several of her own service games but could never close them out. That led to Azarenka breaking Stephens multiple times and the No. 1, with a topspin lob winner, wrapped up the first set 6-1.

Stephens, who appeared to lack a clear game plan to handle Azarenka, started playing with more purpose in the second set and traded breaks with the top seed midway through the set. But after Stephens played a poor game to drop her serve to love, Azarenka found herself serving for the match at 5-3.

And that's when the drama started. Through a series of forehand errors, an increasingly frustrated Azarenka would let five match points slip by her. After Stephens hit a forehand winner of her own to get back on serve at 5-4, Azarenka called for the trainer and eventually received a medical time out to deal with a locked rib that Azarenka said later made it difficult for her to breath.

Walking off court to receive treatment, Azarenka returned almost 10 minutes later. The extended break seemed to work as Azarenka hit a forehand winner late in the game to set up her sixth match point. Stephens sent a final backhand long, her 42 unforced error of the day, and that gave a relieved Azarenka the 6-1, 6-4 victory.

"I almost did the choke of the year," admitted Azarenka during her on-court interview with Channel 7's Sam Smith, an admission of nerves that earned her a less than excited response from the crowd on hand.

Afterwards in her press conference, Azarenka responded to the criticism that she abuse the injury time out by saying she misunderstood in the initial question asked of her by Smith on court.

"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, 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 simple misunderstanding of a question.  I guess it was my bad."

When asked if Azarenka's extended break in the match bothered her at all, Stephens responded, "No, Not really.  I mean, just another something else that happens.  Like if it was one of my friends, I would say, Oh, my God, that sounds like a PP, which is a personal problem.  Other than that, it's just unfortunate."

With Sharapova's earlier loss, Azarenka must still win the title outright on Saturday to maintain her No. 1 ranking. A loss in the finals for Azarenka would propel Serena Williams to the top spot in the WTA

Azarenka leads the head to head versus Li 5-4.

(Photo Credit:Mark Peterson/Corleve)


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