Maria Sharapova overcame Petra Kvitova to set up a women’s final against Victoria Azarenka at the Australian Open before the attention quickly shifted to a much-anticipated semi-final showdown between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
Sharapova broke Kvitova’s serve in the last game to finish off at 6-2, 3-6, 6-4 yesterday, and third-seeded Azarenka beat defending champion Kim Clijsters 6-4, 1-6, 6-3 to set up tomorrow night’s final at the Rod Laver Arena that also will decide the No. 1 ranking.
Sharapova lost to second-ranked Kvitova in the Wimbledon final last year, her first major final since returning from an injury layoff following a shoulder operation in 2008. She has won three majors, but none since the Australian Open four years ago.
“In the third set, I felt she always had the advantage because I was always down on my serve,” said Sharapova, who served five double-faults in the third set and 10 in the match. “I just told myself ‘You just gotta go for it, don’t let her finish off the points like she likes to.’”
Azarenka won the first semifinal after twice recovering from periods when a resurgent Clijsters seemed to have the upper hand, to secure victory in only her second appearance in a major semifinal.
“I felt like my hand is about 200 kilograms and my body is about 1,000 and everything is shaking, but that feeling when you finally win is such a relief. My God I cannot believe it’s over. I just want to cry,” Azarenka said as she choked back tears, then buried her face in a towel.
“It was just trying to stay in the moment. Kim really took over the second set and I felt there was nothing I could do. I just tried to regroup.”
Clijsters is popular in Australia, where she’s widely known as “Aussie Kim.” She had most of the backing from the crowd on the national holiday in what was likely to be her last Australian Open.
Azarenka held her nerve despite the crowd and the fact she was up against a proven big-match player. Clijsters has won four majors and has defended a Grand Slam title — winning the US Open in 2009 and 2010. To reach the semifinals, the Belgian saved four match points despite a sprained ankle to beat French Open champion Li Na in the fourth round and then beat top-ranked Caroline Wozniacki in the quarter-finals.
“I guess before you all thought I was a mental case,” Azarenka said in a courtside interview. “I was just young and emotional. I’m really glad the way I fight, that’s the most thing I’m really proud of. I fight for every ball.”
Clijsters credited Azarenka with increasing maturity.
“The match was very close. There were a few deciding moments where I think I maybe had a little bit of an advantage, in the third set, especially that first game where I had break point,” Clijsters said. “But she definitely played really well. So she deserved to win at the end.”
Wozniacki will vacate top spot in next week’s rankings after her quarterfinal loss, leaving either No. 3 Azarenka or No. 4 Sharapova to move to the top.
The top men’s ranking was not at issue last night. Novak Djokovic — who plays Andy Murray in another semi-final today — has that locked up regardless of the Australian Open results.
Rafael Nadal came from behind to topple great rival Roger Federer 6-7, 6-2, 7-6, 6-4 yesterday in an enthralling match of the highest quality.
Like so many of their battles over the years, their 27th clash was a feast of shot-making, with exhilaration and suspense served up in equal measure under the lights of a heaving Rod Laver Arena.