MELBOURNE: World number one Victoria Azarenka ended the dream run of American teenager Sloane Stephens in controversial fashion yesterday to set up an Australian Open final against China’s Li Na.
Azarenka, who will retain top spot on the rankings if she defends her title at Melbourne Park, needed six match points to defeat Stephens 6-1, 6-4 move into tomorrow’s championship decider against Li.
“I almost did the choke of the year,” said Azarenka, after losing five match points while serving at 5-3 in the second set. “So many chances. I felt a little bit overwhelmed. Nerves got to me, for sure.”
In a dramatic ending, in scorching heat on Rod Laver Arena, Azarenka let slip five match points when she was serving for the match, before being broken for 5-4.
The Belarusian then called a medical timeout and left the court for 10 minutes to receive treatment for rib and knee complaints. When play resumed, Stephens was unable to hold serve and Azarenka made it into the final.
“It was important to overcome this little bit of struggle. I couldn’t lose. I just couldn’t. That was why I was so upset. I couldn’t breathe out there. It’s a tremendous achievement and I’m so happy I pulled it through.”
In the other semi-final Li shocked Maria Sharapova 6-2, 6-2 to storm into the Open final.
Li, Asia’s first Grand Slam singles champion, came out firing and halted Sharapova’s storming run with a blaze of aggression which stunned the four-time major champion.
The Chinese world number six, who reaches her second Melbourne final, now has a chance to add to her historic 2011 French Open crown which brought tennis to public attention in her home country.
“After playing for 20 years, this is the first time in my life,” she said, when asked if she’d played a perfect match. “At the beginning of the match I was nervous. I was happy I was back in the semis again, but for some reason I really wanted to win this match. I don’t know what happened today. I just came to the court, feeling like, ‘OK, just do it’.”
‘Incredible’ Djokovic destroys Ferrer to reach final
Meanwhile, defending champion Novak Djokovic produced one of the best performances of his career yesterday as he destroyed fourth-seed David Ferrer to reach the Australian Open final.
The Serbian world number one was simply on a different level to the Spaniard, reeling off a staggering 6-2, 6-2, 6-1 victory in just one hour 29 minutes in front of a stunned Rod Laver Arena crowd.
Djokovic will now be considered the raging favourite to win his fourth Australian title in Sunday’s decider against either Roger Federer or Andy Murray, who play their semi-final today.
Djokovic was in irresistible form, breaking the hapless Ferrer’s serve seven times and hitting 30 winners with just 16 unforced errors in an awesome display.
“I played incredible tennis and I felt very comfortable and very confident from the start,” said Djokovic. “I wanted to be aggressive on the court but this is definitely one of the best performances I’ve ever had in my career.”
It is Djokovic’s fourth Australian Open final in six years and he is looking to become the first man in the Open era to win the title three times in a row.
“It can only do positive things for my confidence. Definitely at this stage of the tournament, playing semi-finals against the world number four, it’s incredible.
“I have a great feeling about myself on the court at this moment. Now I have two days off before the final which gives me enough time to get ready and recover.”
V Azarenka – Route to final
Beat S Stephens 6-1, 6-4
Beat S Kuznetsova 7-5, 6-1
Beat E Vesnina 6-1, 6-1
Beat J Hampton 6-4, 4-6, 6-2
Beat E Daniilidou 6-1, 6-0
Beat M Niculescu 6-1, 6-4
Li Na – Route to final
Beat M Sharapova 6-2, 6-2
Beat A Radwanska 7-5, 6-3
Beat J Goerges 7-6 (8/6), 6-1
Beat S Cirstea 6-4, 6-1
2nd rou nd
Beat O Govortsova 6-2, 7-5
Beat S Karatantcheva 6-1, 6-3
Published in The Express Tribune, January 25th, 2013.