WOMEN'S SEMIFINALS  LI DEF.  SHARAPOVA 6-2, 6-2  AZARENKA DEF.  STEPHENS 6-1, 6-4 Up next: Women's final, 2 a.m. Saturday, ESPN2
Stephens and Sharapova exit
- Article by: JOHN PYE
- Associated Press
- January 24, 2013 - 1:03 AM
MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - Victoria Azarenka overcame a sore left ankle, some anxiety and a slew of frustrating forehand errors before fending off American teenager Sloane Stephens to reach the Australian Open final against Li Na.
For the second time in two days, 19-year-old Stephens sat patiently on a courtside chair during a medical timeout by an experienced, older player late in the second set.
On Thursday, the top-seeded Azarenka returned to finish off a 6-1, 6-4 victory on her sixth match point. It had been a different outcome Wednesday, when Stephens rallied from a set and a break down to beat an injured Serena Williams in three sets.
Azarenka said in an on-court interview that she "almost did the choke of the year" when she wasted five match points on serve at 5-3 in the second, mostly with unforced errors on her forehand.
She went to the locker room for medical treatment after dropping that game, then returned to break the 29th-seeded Stephens' serve to finish off the match.
The 23-year-old Azarenka later said the treatment was for chest pain. "I couldn't breathe. I had chest pains," she said. "It was like I was getting a heart attack."
Stephens produced the upset of the tournament to advance to a Grand Slam semifinal for the first time with her 3-6, 7-5, 6-4 victory over 15-time major winner Serena Williams on Wednesday. Williams, who had been bidding for a third consecutive Grand Slam title, hurt her back in the second set and, after leading by a set and a break, ended a 20-match winning streak.
The temperature hit 97 degrees during the second women's semifinal, slightly hotter than it had been when Li beat No. 2-ranked Maria Sharapova 6-2, 6-2 to reach the Australian Open final for the second time in three years.
Sharapova was the heavy favorite after the Russian conceded only nine games in her first five matches, a record at the Australian Open.
But the semifinal started badly for the 25-year-old, serving double-faults to lose the first two points and conceding a break in the first game.
Li was the first Chinese player to reach a Grand Slam final when she lost to Kim Clijsters at Melbourne Park in 2011. She had her breakthrough a few months later when she won the French Open, defeating Sharapova in the semifinals along the way.
"I don't know what happened [but] I always play well here, so thanks guys," said Li, who was playing her third Australian Open semifinal in four years. "I just came to the court feeling like, 'OK, just do it.' "
The heat and the speed of the court surface suited Li's game.
"She was certainly much more aggressive than I was, dictating the play. I was always on the defense," said Sharapova, who could have gained the No. 1 ranking by reaching the Australian final. "When I had my opportunities and break points in games that went to deuce, I don't think any of them really went my way."
© 2013 Star Tribune