MELBOURNE (AFP): China’s Li Na stormed into the final of the Australian Open with a straight-sets upset win over Maria Sharapova, leaving her one victory away from a second major title.
|Li Na of China (R) shakes hands with Maria Sharapova of Russia after defeating her in their women’s singles semi-final match at the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne January 24, 2013. REUTERS
Li, 30, defeated the world number two 6-2, 6-2 in 1hr 33min and will now face the winner of Thursday’s second semi-final between world number one Victoria Azarenka and American teenager Sloane Stephens.
“Every time I’m back in Australia, I always feel something here,” said Li, the 2011 runner-up. “I always play well here. Everyone can be nervous in a final, so I have to enjoy it. I’m looking forward to the final.”
Sharapova had lost only nine games in her march to the semi-finals, a tournament record, but Li was always going to provide a far sterner test despite trailing 4-8 in their head-to-head encounters.
And the Russian started disastrously with consecutive double faults as she was broken in the opening game.
Four-time major winner Sharapova could have returned to the world number one ranking had she won her second Australian Open title, but Li’s ball striking had her on the back foot from the outset. Benefiting from her intense off-season fitness training under new coach Carlos Rodriguez, Li was untroubled by the sweltering heat in Melbourne and broke for a second time to take a 4-1 lead. Her serving was steady, and her groundstrokes were probing. Two close video rulings went against Li and Sharapova retrieved one of the service breaks, only to hand it straight back.
China’s 2011 French Open champion closed out the opening set in 48 minutes, but she then missed a sitter of a forehand in a worrying sign at the beginning of the second set.
She resolutely held her serve, however, and Sharapova stumbled in the fifth game. The fifth of Sharapova’s six double faults handed Li another chance to break and when the Russian went long with a backhand, Li led 3-2.
She led 40-15 in the next game but Sharapova unloaded some ferocious winners to reach break point. Li recovered to move within sight of the finish line, breaking again for 5-2.
Li lost her first match point by hooking a forehand wide, but she then polished off the upset victory as Sharapova finished with a ruinous 32 unforced errors.
Sharapova admitted Li’s superior aggression had won the day and left her unable to find a way back into the match.
“I think she played a really great match. She was certainly much more aggressive than I was, dictating the play. I was always on the defence,” said the 25-year-old Russian. “When I had my opportunities and break points in games that went to deuce, I don’t think any of them really went my way today.”