NEW YORK – Normally so good, so gritty, in the crucible of the third set, Maria Sharapova finally met her match against Victoria Azarenka.
Coming all the way back from a set and a break down, the top-seeded Azarenka prevailed in a stirring third, beating four-time Grand Slam champion Sharapova 3-6, 6-2, 6-4 on Friday to reach her first U.S. Open final.
"This one didn't go my way," Sharapova said. "Frustrating, but it's the game of tennis. A lot of swings in the match today. Certainly had the lead and the advantage."
Entering Friday, Sharapova was 12-0 in three-setters this year, and had won 78 consecutive matches in which she took the opening set, a streak dating to 2010. But Azarenka broke in the last game to push her own 2012 record to 12-0 in matches that went the distance.
"I didn't know that statistic," Azarenka said during an on-court interview. "It's pretty good."
On Saturday, Australian Open champion Azarenka will play in her second major final of the season — and career — and will try to stop 14-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams' strong run. Seeking a fourth title at Flushing Meadows, the fourth-seeded Williams wasted little time or energy while overwhelming 10th-seeded Sara Errani of Italy 6-1, 6-2.
The entire match lasted all of 64 minutes — or 10 minutes fewer than the third set between Azarenka and Sharapova.
"It's stressful against her," Errani said. "She puts a lot of pressure on you."
A year ago, Williams was stunned in straight sets in the U.S. Open final by Sam Stosur of Australia. Facing a break point at the start of the second set, Williams pounded a forehand she celebrated with her familiar yell of "Come on!" as Stosur was reaching to return the shot. The chair umpire awarded the point to Stosur, setting Williams off on a series of insults directed at the official, including, "You're just unattractive inside."
In the 2009 semifinals in New York, Williams launched into her infamous foot-fault tirade and was docked a point on match point, ending a loss to Kim Clijsters.
When a reporter mentioned to Williams, who won the U.S. Open in 1999, 2002 and 2008, that nothing of that sort has happened this year, she replied: "Hey, it's not done yet."
"I did grunt once today, and I thought, 'God, I hope I don't lose the point,'" said Williams, who has lost 19 games in six matches this year. "Like I said, my goal this year was not to get in any fights."
Williams, trying to become the first 30-year-old woman to win the U.S. Open since Martina Navratilova in 1987, compiled a 38-6 edge in winners against Errani. Since a surprising exit at the French Open in late May, her only first-round loss in 49 appearances at major tournaments, Williams is 25-1, including a title at Wimbledon and gold medal at the London Olympics.
Williams owns a 9-1 career record against Azarenka.
"I've got to do something different, to be honest," Azarenka said.
Asked whether she would watch video of their past matches, Azarenka joked: "Well, I don't want to be depressed."
Then again, the way Azarenka dealt with Sharapova, she's probably feeling pretty good about herself, too. She sure looked pleased while doing a little jig, then chucking some tennis balls into the stands, after the fading Sharapova's forehand sailed long on the final point of their 2-hour, 42-minute quarterfinal.
"I was just not trying to focus on the score," Azarenka said. "Trying to give whatever it takes."
Given a chance to rest for a bit after the second set by a 10-minute break requested by Sharapova under the extreme heat rule, both women came out swinging away in the third. Azarenka emerged from the locker room before Sharapova and took the opportunity to practice groundstrokes and serves with ballkids.
The third set was filled with high-quality play, made all the more impressive considering the sun, the swirling wind and what was at stake. They hit the ball hard. They chased down shots with terrific defense. Sharapova even shifted her racket from her right to her left hand during a couple of lengthy exchanges.
One particularly intense and riveting game came with Sharapova serving while trailing 2-1. Azarenka accumulated three break points, but Sharapova saved each, the last with a cross-court backhand winner. After a fifth deuce, Sharapova eventually held with a 109 mph ace, one of her eight in the match.
But the third-seeded Sharapova also double-faulted 10 times, a recurring theme ever since she returned from surgery on her right shoulder in 2008.
"I gave her too many free points," Sharapova said.
This has been a resurgent year for the Russian, who completed a career Grand Slam by winning the French Open in June, was the runner-up at the Australian Open and the Olympics, and briefly returned to No. 1 in the rankings — a spot that now belongs to Azarenka.
"I'll take the results I had this year," Sharapova said.
She reached her first U.S. Open semifinal since winning the 2006 title thanks to overcoming deficits en route to three-set victories in the fourth round and quarterfinals.
But she didn't have one more late-match charge in her.
With a cloudless blue sky and the temperature above 85 degrees, Arthur Ashe Stadium was steamy when Sharapova and Azarenka got started, shrieking loudly with nearly every stroke.
Well, Sharapova was ready at the outset, anyway. Azarenka? Not so much.
Sharapova took 12 of the first 17 points, hitting deep, clean groundstrokes, while Azarenka needed 18 minutes to win a single game. When they met in the Australian Open final, Sharapova won a total of three games. She equaled that by the time she led 3-0 when Friday's semifinal was 11 minutes old.
Azarenka, who came in averaging 20 winners per match in the tournament, managed to produce merely one in the first set. She finished with 19, the same number as her unforced error count. It was Sharapova whose play determined the result on most points: She had 44 winners and 42 unforced errors.
When Sharapova broke Azarenka to go ahead 1-0 in the second set, she appeared to be in control. But that's when Azarenka really showed up, taking four consecutive games and six of the next seven.
"All heart," said Azarenka, a 23-year-old from Belarus.
"That's what I feel like we play for, we live for," Azarenka said, "to play on these big stages against such champions."
She'll get a chance to do that again Saturday against Williams.
Follow Howard Fendrich on Twitter at http://twitter.com/HowardFendrich