Novak Djokovic installed himself as red-hot favorite for a third straight Australian Open title with a semi-final demolition of David Ferrer yesterday after Victoria Azarenka had controversially set up a final against Li Na.
Djokovic was brutally dominant as he pulverized the Spanish fourth seed 6-2, 6-2, 6-1 in 89 minutes in the Rod Laver Arena to race into Sunday’s final against Roger Federer or Andy Murray.
“This was definitely one of the best matches of my career,” he said. “Tonight I just played incredible.”
China’s Li was also impressive in a 6-2, 6-2 win over Russia’s Maria Sharapova, but it was the second women’s semi-final that provided the main talking point of the day.
There was no doubt that defending champion Azarenka was a worthy 6-1, 6-4 winner over US teenager Sloane Stephens, but the specter of gamesmanship was raised when the Belarussian took a lengthy medical timeout after failing to convert five match points.
“I almost did the choke of the year right now,” the world No. 1 said at courtside after she had wrapped up her place in tomorrow’s final.
“At 5-3, having so many chances, couldn’t close it out, but I’m glad I could close it out. Nerves got into me for sure,” she said.
Stephens did not make an issue of it and Azarenka clarified her comments in the face of a barrage of questions at her post-match news conference.
“I’m telling you what happened right now honestly, that my back was bothering me,” Azarenka said, blaming a rib injury for the problem. “It took me too long of a time to call the trainer, which was my mistake.”
“I took it to the point where I couldn’t breathe, which was [caused by] my back problem, and I couldn’t really figure out what was going on on the court,” she said.
“I was really panicking, not because I couldn’t convert my match point. That’s not the case,” she said.
Former men’s No. 4 Jonas Bjorkman was among many who took to social media to call for a change to the rules over medical timeouts.
“Azarenka took a medical timeout after all her missing matchpoints or because of an injury? Time to change that rule! No sportsmanship there!” he tweeted.
Djokovic looked like he barely wanted to take a break even at changeovers as he delivered a masterpiece of a performance against the fifth best player in men’s tennis.
The Serb won 91 percent of his first serve points, converted all seven of his break points and hit 30 winners as he thrashed Ferrer.
While Djokovic’s performance had the tennis purists purring, Li’s victory would have had the tournament’s marketing department grinning from ear to ear. The self-titled “Grand Slam of the Asia-Pacific” has never had an Asian singles champion and Li, whose first trip to the Melbourne Park final ended in defeat to Kim Clijsters in 2011, has a second chance to put that right.
“At the beginning of the match I was nervous,” said the 30-year-old Chinese. “I was happy to be back in the semis again.”
“I’m really hungry for the title,” she added. “I think this time should be maybe a different story.”
Li showed none of the mental frailties that have dogged her in the past as she broke the Russian in her first service game and never looked back.
“When your opponent is always up and ahead, it’s always a little bit mentally easier for them to keep that going,” Sharapova said.
“If I would have taken those chances and clawed my way back and made it a bit tougher for her, I’m sure she would have thought a little bit more. But I certainly didn’t make her think about anything.”