Tale of two semi-finals: Li looks good while No.1 is puffed
Winner ... Li Na celebrates her semi-final win. Photo: Pat Scala
ONE dropped four games in winning her semi-final; the other five. But where Li Na enters Saturday night's decider on the back of what she termed the perfect match, Victoria Azarenka must overcome an injury concern, accusations of gamesmanship and the stress of nearly throwing it away to retain her Australian Open crown and world No.1 ranking.
Azarenka was on track to crush American teen Sloane Stephens when up a set and a break, until she favoured her left leg reaching for a low backhand in the third game of the second set on Thursday; at just the same stage of the match Serena Williams's back seized against her compatriot a day earlier.
Where Williams couldn't, Azarenka at least closed out the match, 6-1, 6-4, but only after spending about 10 minutes off the court through successive medical time outs, which she took immediately after blowing five match points and dropping serve. ESPN commentators and former stars Chris Evert and Pam Shriver accused the Belarusian of exploiting the rules to slow the match down and change the momentum.
On returning, Azarenka converted a sixth match point, and admitted immediately after the match she had panicked. ''I almost did the choke of the year right now. At 5-3 and having so many chances I couldn't close it out. I'm glad I could turn it around,'' she said. ''I was just a bit overwhelmed playing and realising I was one step away from the final and nerves got into me for sure.'' She also complained of chest pains.
Azarenka is now one win away from matching Williams's 2009-10 feat and claiming successive titles at Melbourne Park, and must do so to ensure she keeps her ranking; a loss will mean Williams becomes the new No.1.
But her path through to the final was not nearly as convincing as that of Li, who earlier stormed past second seed Maria Sharapova 6-2, 6-2 with a superb display of power, timing and precision hitting, a performance she later said was close to faultless.
''After 20 years, first time in my life, you know,'' she said. ''Beginning of the match, I was nervous. I was happy I came back to semis again but, for some reason, I really want to win the match.''
Sharapova said she had never been on the end of such a performance from Li and said there was ''no reason why'' the Chinese could not win the title. Li also forecast a better showing than in the 2011 final, when, having made history at becoming the first Asian player to reach a grand slam final, she lost in three sets to Kim Clijsters. Li recovered to win that year's French Open, but on Thursday said she had developed a hunger since that first taste of a major final.
''I mean, 2011, first time to [a] grand slam final, I was a little bit shocked because I didn't know what I should do,'' she said. ''Also no one tell me what I should do on the court. But this time, I got more experience, so I think should be better.''
Where Li was match-hardened and in good form entering the match, having won a tournament in Shenzhen, reaching the semi-finals in Sydney and beating fourth seed Agnieszka Radwanska in the quarter-finals at Melbourne Park, Sharapova looked to have paid the price for too many comfortable matches, having won 60 of 69 games over the first five rounds, as she struggled with the depth and speed her opponent continuously found.
But Sharapova, last year's runner-up, refused to use her softer run as an excuse.
''I felt like I had my fair share of opportunities,'' she said. ''It's not like they weren't there. I just couldn't take them.''
Azarenka holds a 5-4 advantage over Li and has won their past four matches but Li has won both encounters in grand slams, in Melbourne and Paris.