Li Na showed no mercy today in Melbourne when she and Maria Sharapova competed in the Australian Open semifinals. Li has the game to beat just about anybody, but she's prone to making errors when stressed. But today, a calmer Li pushed the 2nd seed around expertly, and murdered the Russian's second serve over and over from both sides of the court.
Known as having a very strong backhand and a weaker forehand, the Chinese star actually has a cracking forehand, but historically, it hasn't always been a reliable shot for her and tends to break down when Li is under pressure. In today's semifinal, though, Li's forehand repeatedly landed in the far corners of the court, out of Sharapova's reach. Li made Sharapova move a lot, too, and the Russian looked frustrated much of the time. Forced to play a defensive role against an opponent who was on fire, Sharapova often looked careless and sluggish.
There was an early foreshadow of Sharapova's shakiness: She double-faulted on the first point of her opening service game. She was broken, and then broken again, as Li went up 4-1. Sharapova broke Li in the sixth game, but she was broken right back, giving Li a 5-2 lead. The Chinese star had no trouble holding serve to take the first set 6-2.
In the second set, Li broke for 3-2, then broke again. She took that set 6-2, also, winning the whole thing on her second match point. Li's serving was excellent throughout, and was a key factor in allowing her to ruthlessly dictate play. Sharapova, on the other hand, got 45 of 69 first serves in, and was successful with 28 of them, but she succeeded with only 6 of 24 second serves. She committed 32 unforced errors, and was able to break Li only once, though she had seven break opportunities.
Prior to playing in the semifinals, Sharapova had dropped only nine games in six matches.
In the other semifinal, defending champion and top seed Victoria Azarenka beat Sloane Stephens 6-1, 6-4. The scoreline may sound like the defending champion breezed through a routine match--and she almost did--but the event wasn't without some Azarenka-style drama.
The top seed was was limping a bit in the first set, and was checked by a trainer, though it's unclear exactly what was bothering her. She won that set 6-1, and--no longer limping--looked like she was going to run away with the second set. Stephens couldn't establish a rhythm against Azarenka, and her energy (her psychic energy, at least) appeared depleted. She missed a lot of forehands.
But then things changed. Serving for the match at 5-3, Azarenka began to crumble (think "old Vika"). She blew five match points with forehands that couldn't have been any worse if she were blindfolded. It didn't help that she became increasingly angry with herself with every missed match point. At one point she told someone, presumably in her player box, to "shut up." The defending champion was clearly becoming unhinged.
For her part, Stephens didn't really have to do anything but stand there and watch Azarenka implode. And perhaps because she didn't have to do anything, she didn't seem to grasp the meaning of the occasion. But then, suddenly, it seemed to dawn on her that she had an opening. Stephens woke up at that moment, and proceeded to break Azarenka.
Azarenka then took a medical break. She explained, in her on-court interview, that she couldn't breathe and her chest felt tight. In other words, she was overcome by anxiety, which was kind of obvious. While Azarenka was off the court, taking a medical timeout, Stephens just sat there waiting. When Azarenka returned, she broke Stephens and won the match.
So the defending champion will play the 2011 runner-up in the final. That Azarenka and Li are the last two women standing doesn't surprise me. I'm thinking this final is going to be interesting.