It was a day of straight set semifinals at the Australian Open, but not without controversy and drama. The first and last matches completed on the day were surprisingly one sided and overly drab.
Following Serena’s Wednesday shocker, new tournament favorite and No. 2 seed Maria Sharapova was routinely dismissed by Li Na 6-2, 6-2. Sharapova had looked invincible in her five previous matches losing just nine games, a record low for an Australian Open semifinalist. And she had beaten Na three times last year. But the Russian’s soft draw and one dimensional game was exposed by the heavy-hitting Na who was on the offensive right from the start.
“Beginning of the match I was nervous,” said Na who reached the finals in 2011. “I was happy I come back to semis again, but for some reason I really want to win the match. I don’t know what happened today. Just come to the court, feeling like, Okay, just do it.”
Sharapova had looked so good in the tournament but today her game wasn’t good enough.
“I think she played a really great match,” said Sharapova. “She was certainly much more aggressive than I was, dictating the play. I was always on the defense. When I had my opportunities and breakpoints in games that went to deuce, I don’t think any of them really went my way today.”
For all her fury and notoriety, Sharapova hasn’t claimed a title since the French Open. Maybe new boyfriend Grigor Dimitrov can change that.
In the night match, streaking Novak Djokovic won his 20th straight match at the Australian Open by absolutely obliterating world No. 5 David Ferrer 6-2, 6-2, 6-1.
“Definitely at this stage of a tournament, playing semifinals against the world No. 4, somebody that I have respect for, great competitor, and being able to perform as well as I did, it’s incredible,” Djokovic said. “I have a great feeling about myself on the court at this moment. Now I have two days off before the finals which gives me enough time to get ready, you know, and recover for the finals.”
Djokovic is into his third straight final at the Australian Open as the Serb seeks an Open Era record fourth title in Melbourne. He began his Australian Open defense with three blowout wins but then nearly was clipped by Stan Wawrinka in a 5-hour epic last Sunday. The top seed got his game back against Tomas Berdych in a four set quarterfinal victory but tonight against Ferrer it was pure devastation.
“He play very, very good,” said Ferrer who had just escaped in five against Nicolas Almagro. “I didn’t have any chance for to win tonight. Nothing else. Only can I say is Novak, he was better in all the moment than me.”
Ferrer now drops to 0-5 in his career in Grand Slam semifinals and he’s never beaten Djokovic in five tries at a Major. Ferrer, however, will replace Rafael Nadal as the top ranked Spaniard in the rankings on Monday.
Next for Novak is the winner of Friday’s much-anticipated Andy Murray-Roger Federer affair.
“It’s going to be a great match, obviously,” he said of the second semi. “They’re great rivals and also best players in the world at this moment. They will definitely perform their best for sure in semifinals. I wouldn’t rate anybody as a favorite. Just considering myself, I’ll be ready for whoever I play against.”
Sandwiched between the two lopsided semifinals was what looked to be another straight forward finish. Top seed and defending champion Victoria Azarenka was cruising to victory up 6-2, 2-0 on upstart American Sloane Stephens. But then there seemed to be a knee/foot injury that allowed the young 19-year-old Stephens to level to 2-2.
Azarenka shrugged off the apparent injury to grab the break and lead 4-2. Then serving for the match at 5-3 things began to unravel. A visibly nervous Azarenka squandered five matchpoints missing wildly on several forehands including one that landed a good 20 feed out.
With the temperatures approaching 100F adding pressure to a prompt finish, Stephens simply kept hitting balls back allowing the Bela-Russian self destruct and it paid off. From the brink, Stephens got the break back and the crowd came to life.
During the 5-4 changeover Azarenka called for the trainer. After a brief evaluation for what appeared to be a spinal/back issue, she was taken off court for a good ten minutes while Stephens just sat, looking glazed.
When play resumed with Stephens serving 4-5, Azarenka found a second wind and closed it out on her sixth matchpoint when a Stephens backhand landed inches out. GSM Azarenka 6-1, 6-4. Phew. The ordeal was over. Or was it?
Azarenka was asked during subsequent on court interviews about her odd, untimely medical time out. Her response, “I almost did the choke of the year right now,” she told Sam Smith of Channel 7. “At 5-3, having so many chances and I couldn’t close it out. I was a bit overwhelmed realizing I was one step away from the final. Nerves got into me, for sure.”
And then on to ESPN, a similar answer. “It was nearly the biggest choke of the year,” she told ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi. “I couldn’t breath”.
Immediately the airwaves became abuzz as to how Azarenka was afforded a medical timeout at that stage for what appeared to be…choking???
In her official press conference that followed about an hour after she finished (getting PR instructions no doubt), Azarenka’s tune had changed.
“I had been struggling a little bit throughout the whole match, from the second set, my back,” she said. “And it just kept getting worse. I should have, called the trainer a little bit earlier before that when I got to the point that I couldn’t really breathe and had to go off court. So there was a little bit of my bad. But just a rib got locked and kept getting worse. I had to have it adjusted. I really had to go and take that medical timeout.”
By rule Azarenka is allowed a medical time out and she was within the rules to take it at that juncture. But from the evidence given it sure sounded like she asked for and received treatment for gagging. Brickbats to the Australian Open medical staff.
Stephens, who shares the same agent as Azarenka, naturally avoided any issue with her Victoria’s act.
“It’s happened before,” Stephens said. “I’ve had in the last match, the match before, medical breaks, go to the bathroom, the whole showdown. It was just something else, but it didn’t affect anything, I don’t think.”
Azarenka controversial win put her into the final against Li Na in a battle of two players into their third Slam final seeking a second crown. Azarenka won last year’s event demolishing Maria Sharapova while Li Na took home the 2011 French Open title. As an added incentive if Azarenka wins it she’ll hold on to the No. 1 ranking. Victoria leads Na 5-4 in their series but after the show Azarenka put on today there’s little wonder as to who the crowd will be behind come Saturday night.
Before then on Friday night it’s the second men’s semifinal between Federer and Murray.
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