Victoria Azarenka of Belarus receives treatment during her semifinal match against Sloane Stephens of the US at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia, Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)The Associated Press
Victoria Azarenka of Belarus reacts during her semifinal match against Sloane Stephens of the US at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia, Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)The Associated Press
Sloane Stephens of the US reacts during her semifinal match against Victoria Azarenka of Belarus at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia, Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)The Associated Press
Victoria Azarenka of Belarus leaves Rod Laver Arena to take a medical time out during her semifinal match against Sloane Stephens of the US 405at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia, Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013. (AP Photo/Andrew Brownbill)The Associated Press
Victoria Azarenka of Belarus serves to Sloane Stephens of the US during their semifinal match at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia, Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013. (AP Photo/Julian Finney,Pool)The Associated Press
MELBOURNE, Australia – Victoria Azarenka had to endure some anxious moments before and after her win over American teenager Sloane Stephens.
Li Na wasn't flustered at all while beating No. 2-ranked Maria Sharapova.
The result is that Li will play for the Australian Open title against Azarenka, who ended Stephens' unexpected run to the semifinals that included a quarterfinal upset of 15-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams.
While Li's 6-2, 6-2 win over Sharapova, who set a tournament record in dropping only nine games in five matches en route to the semis, never appeared in doubt on Thursday, Azarenka added some intrigue in the second semifinal on Rod Laver Arena.
Azarenka finished off a 6-1, 6-4 over Stephens after a medical timeout for rib and knee injuries. The No. 1-ranked player had wasted five match points in the game immediately before leaving the court for medical attention, then returned to break Stephens' serve to end the match.
"Well, I almost did the choke of the year," Azarenka told an on-court interviewer immediately after the match. "At 5-3, having so many chances I couldn't close it out."
Australian Open officials said the tournament doctor reported that Azarenka had left knee and rib injuries.
"I just felt a little bit overwhelmed. I realized I'm one step away from the final and nerves got into me for sure," Azarenka said.
The 23-year-old Belarusian's on-court comments after the match led to speculation about the timing of her medical timeout. She didn't help herself in a second television interview after the match that suggested she was suffering from a severe case of the nerves.
"I couldn't breathe. I had chest pains," she said. "It was like I was getting a heart attack. After that it wasn't my best, but it's important to overcome this little bit of a struggle and win the match."
Defending champion Novak Djokovic and David Ferrer were only one step away from the men's final. They were playing a semifinal later Thursday, with the victor advancing to a final against the winner of Friday's semifinal between Roger Federer and Andy Murray.
In her official post-match news conference — more than an hour after she finished playing — Azarenka felt a need to explain her comments immediately after the match.
"I think I just really misunderstood what (the on-court interviewer) asked me because the question was I had few difficulties and why I went off," Azarenka said. "I completely thought of a different thing, why I couldn't close out of match, you know, that I had few difficulties.
"So I understand the whole situation right now, but it just really (is a) simple misunderstanding of a question. I guess it was my bad."
Pressed again to explain her earlier TV comments, Azarenka said: "I did say that. I did say I couldn't breathe. It was locked. That came from my back. "
Stephens didn't think the timing of the medical break affected the outcome of the match.
"It's happened before. Last match, match before, I've had people going for medical breaks, going to the bathroom," she said. "Didn't affect me. Just another something else that happens."
The temperature hit 97 degrees during the second women's semifinal, slightly hotter than it had been when Li beat Sharapova to reach the Australian Open final for the second time in three years.
The semifinal started badly for the 25-year-old Russian, serving double-faults to lose the first two points and conceding a break in the first game.
Li was the first Chinese player to reach a Grand Slam final when she lost to Kim Clijsters at Melbourne Park in 2011. She had her breakthrough a few months later when she won the French Open, beating Sharapova in the semifinals along the way.
The crowd got behind Li early in the match, yelling "Come on, Li Na!" and others yelling "Jia You!" which is "Come on" in Chinese. After she broke Sharapova to take a 5-2 lead, the Chinese fans in the crowd shook Chinese flags and shouted again, "Jia You!"
"I don't know what happened, (but) I always play well here, so thanks guys," said Li, who was playing her third Australian Open semifinal in four years. "I just came to the court feeling like, 'OK, just do it.'"
The heat and the speed of the court surface suited Li's game.
She broke Sharapova in the third game of the second set and served an ace to move within a point of a 4-2 lead, but lost the next three points to give her opponent a break opportunity.
Two big second serves took Sharapova by surprise, and Li fended off the challenge.
Li's coach, Carlos Rodriguez, who worked with retired seven-time major winner Justine Henin, pumped his fist over his heart after Li won the game.
Sharapova had control in her next service game, but Li scrambled from side to side and pushed the reigning French Open champion to go for the lines, getting a series of unforced errors and another break.
The sixth-seeded Li has been working since August with Rodriguez, and credits him with reviving her career with a renewed emphasis on condition.
"I'm happy. I know I have a tough coach, a tough physio," Li said, looking across to the stands and adding: "You don't need to push me anymore. I will push myself."
Sharapova, who lost the 2012 Australian final in straight sets to Azarenka, admitted it was hard to get into the match against Li.
"She was certainly much more aggressive than I was, dictating the play. I was always on the defense," said Sharapova, who could have gained the No. 1 ranking by reaching the Australian 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."