China's Li Na to face defending champion in Australian Open final

Story highlights

  • China's Li Na beats Russia's Maria Sharapova in straight sets to reach final
  • The former French Open champion also reached the Melbourne final in 2011
  • She will play world No.1 Victoria Azarenka, who defeats U.S. teen Sloane Stephens
  • Azarenka defends herself after taking a lengthy break at crucial point in match

China's Li Na set up an intriguing final against defending champion Victoria Azarenka at the Australian Open after a comprehensive victory Thursday over world No. 2 Maria Sharapova.

The sixth seed -- a beaten finalist in 2011 -- was in imperious form as she romped to 6-2 6-2 win over the Russian in just over an hour and a half.

The 30-year old broke Sharapova's serve three times in the opening set and twice in the second to book her place in Saturday's final in Melbourne.

"Every time I'm back in Australia, I always feel something here," Li, the first Asian female to win a grand slam singles title, told reporters after the match.

"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."

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Li credited a brutal training regime after she reached the final four in Melbourne for the third time in four years.

She began working with Carlos Rodriguez, former trainer of seven-time grand slam winner Justine Henin, after deciding to end her professional relationship with husband Jiang Shan.

"We train every day for five, six hours, but not only playing tennis," she told reporters earlier this week. "Tennis was like maybe two, three hours. Fitness was for two or three hours as well. First time I was training with him, I was so excited, but after three days, I was dying."

Li said ending her tennis partnership with her husband had caused many people to think they had also ended their personal relationship.

"He was doing a very good job," she said. "But between husband and the coach, it is very tough. Sometimes, if he said 'we should do something' I was feeling tired ... That's why sometimes we have to fight."

Sharapova had lost just nine games coming into the match, a record for the tournament, but her game fell apart as she served six double-faults and made 32 unforced errors while failing to convert six of seven break points.

"She was certainly much more aggressive than I was, dictating the play. I was always on the defense," said Sharapova, who lost to Azarenka in last year's final.

"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."

In the other semifinal, world No. 1 Azarenka ended the run of American teenager Sloane Stephens -- who famously knocked out one of the tournament favorites, Serena Williams.

But the Belorussian was forced to overcome an injury scare on her way to a 6-1 6-4 win over her 19-year-old opponent, who saved five match points and broke back to 5-4 in the second set before Azarenka took a lengthy break for medical treatment.

Azarenka raised suspicions of gamesmanship when she suggested in her on-court post-match interview that nerves had got to her.

"I almost did the choke of the year right now," she said. "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."

The 23-year-old clarified her comments at her later press conference.

"I'm telling you honestly that my back was bothering me," Azarenka said.

"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 causing from my back problem, and I couldn't really figure out what was going on on the court. When the trainer told me that was the rib that was blocking that, my back, that's what happened.

"When you cannot breathe you start to panic. I was really panicking, not because I couldn't convert my match point. That's not the case. I mean, I'm experienced enough to go over those emotions.

"But when you cannot breathe, when something's really blocking you, the stress, that was the stress I was talking about. I just couldn't realize what was going on with me."

Stephens refused to criticize Azarenka, with whom she shares an agent.

"We actually are pretty good friends. I'm sure I'll see her and we'll talk about it," Stephens said.

She will rise to a career-high 17th in the rankings after her best showing in a grand slam, while her popularity has also grown -- Stephens' following on her Twitter page has rocketed from 17,000 to more than 55,000.

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