Author: David Archer
Published: 09:56 25/01/2013
30-year-old Li Na has astounded and delighted her fans with a stylish demolition job on Russian World Number 2 Maria Sharapova in their Australian Open Semi-Final match on the Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne. Li Na, ranked 6 in the world, was the rank outsider to win the match in light of Sharapova’s immaculate progress through the tournament, dropping only 9 games in her previous 5 matches. But win it she did, by the impressive score of 6-2, 6-2 after Sharapova failed to leave the starting blocks in the blistering 90+ degrees heat.
After double faulting twice in the first game, the Russian was forced to race around the court to chase the ball which Li Na was directing with authority and pace. A series of unforced errors, combined with a lack of aggression, lost Sharapova the first set and matters did not improve in the second. Sharapova was broken in the third game and Li Na served an ace to move within a point of a 4-2 lead but then lost the following three points, allowing Sharapova a break opportunity that she was unable to take, as Li Na regrouped to deliver 2 terrific serves to see off the challenge. From that point, the outcome of the match did not look in doubt, much to the delight of the crowd, many of whom were fellow countrymen vigorously waving Chinese flags and shouting out their support.
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After the match, Sharapova graciously acknowledged that “She was certainly much more aggressive than I was, dictating the play. I was always on the defence.” Li Na, who was beaten by Kim Clijsters in the 2011 Final, attributes her recent soar in form to her new coach, Argentinian Carlos Rodriguez, who has worked on her mental belief as well as physical conditioning. She will now face defending champion and World Number 1, Victoria Azarenka in the Final this weekend.
Azarenka, from Belarus, had a straightforward advance to the Final with a 6-1,6-4 victory over the American teenage prodigy Sloane Stephens. 19-year-old Stephens was unable to replicate her form of her dramatic Quarter-Final win over tennis legend Serena Williams. Her 23-year-old foe did not deliver a faultless performance, however, wasting 5 match points in the ninth game of the second set. Her medical time out at that critical point in the match has subsequently proven contentious (with concerns that it was called to settle her nerves, rather than to address breathing problems as she claims) but she did return to win the match on the sixth match point by again breaking Stephen’s serve.
Azarenka remains the favourite to lift the Australian Open trophy once more, despite suffering an injury to her left ankle during her win over Stephens. Bookmaker BetVictor offers odds of 4/6 that she will win, with Li Na the underdog at odds of 6/5. Li Na is hungry for the victory though, and her form is terrific just now. Some two years after winning her first Grand Slam at the French Open in 2011, and having failed to deliver the Australian Open in the same year, she has stormed through the tournament and remains confident of her abilities, saying “Every time I’m back in Australia...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”. So are we and it will take place on Saturday 26 January at 8.30 am GMT
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