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Sharapova, Azarenka set to meet for Australian Open title, top spot

MELBOURNE, Australia -- Some thoughts on Thursday's women's semifinals at the Australian Open, where Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka advanced with three-set victories to set up a final in which the winner will become the WTA's new No. 1 ...

As with any long-running reality show, the dramatis personae in tennis come with tidy descriptions, roles that can be tough to shake. There's Kim Clijsters, the genial and benign mother. There's King Roger, the benevolent despot, full of sophistication and reason. There's Rafael Nadal, the working-class hero.

Sometimes, though, these characterizations don't capture reality. As, I gather, ESPN viewers are finding out this tournament, the notion that Chris Evert is the anodyne girl next door is laughable. For years Ivan Lendl was the robotic presence, born without a personality gene; now we hear he is a budding comic.

The most egregious mischaracterization, though, is that of Maria Sharapova. Her various sponsors may cast her as the imperious, elegant blond. But here's the truth: She is a back-alley brawler.

And this truth was in full effect Thursday, in the second Australian Open women's semifinal. Sharapova's game has never been stylistic, even before shoulder surgery wreaked havoc on her serve. She is not particularly athletic or flexible. Her net game verges on nonexistent. But she has won titles, achieved the top ranking and revived her career because of this: She is a nasty fighter.

After winning the first set against Petra Kvitova, Sharapova dropped a level while her opponent came up. The double faults and shaky serving that has pocked so many Sharapova's matches lately -- the legacy of shoulder surgery -- popped up (she would finish with 10 double faults and no aces). The match stayed tight until 4-4 in the third set. And then Sharapova showed off her appetite for battle. We traffic in clichés here: She wanted it more, she refused to lose, she showed the heart of a champion. But that doesn't make the sentiment less true. She held her serve at 4-4 and waited for a younger, less experienced opponent to blink. Which she did. Sharapova, 6-2, 3-6, 6-4.

"This is obviously what I train for and why I go out on the court and try to improve, for moments like this," Sharapova said. "You have them [Grand Slam tournaments] four times a year, and these are the big ones for us, the important ones. It's really where you have to find a way to win and step up when it really matters. Today was just a good example of that for me."

Sharapova was ranked outside the top 100 when she returned from her shoulder surgery in 2010 and there was no quick fix. Rather, there was a battle, filled with surges and setbacks, successes and resistance. She's now a match away from winning a fourth Grand Slam title and reclaiming the top ranking. Saturday night is all right for fightin'.

Victoria Azarenka didn't stop making noise at Rod Laver Arena on Thursday afternoon. Sure, there was the usual auditory assault, the stuck-pig-giving-birth soundtrack that has enraged so many and provoked so much discussion. But the real shrieks came from her shoes as she chased ball after ball defeating defending champion Kim Clijsters 6-4, 1-6, 6-3 in a gripping semifinal.

Apart from her grunting that has overshadowed her on-court achievements thus far, Azarenka is known for her concussive ball-striking, including what might be the most potent backhand in the women's game. But it was her movement, her defense not her offense, that won her the match.

Azarenka out-Clijstered Clijsters -- no small feat -- scrambling, retrieving and prolonging points with hustle and transitioning gracefully. It was Azarenka's feet that enabled her to overcome her nerves and reach her first Grand Slam final.

After firing away and winning the first set, Azarenka got a case of the yips, shanking routine balls and watching as her first-serve accuracy plummeted under 30 percent. The crowd, pro-Clijsters, came to life. This looked like still another case of a WTA prospect declining to meet the moment.

Azarenka, though, regrouped, took an early lead in the third set and closed out the match by winning the last two games, getting most of her points by frustrating Clijsters with her defense and then extracting a mistake.

When Clijsters' 44th miscast shot of the day sailed beyond the baseline, it may have marked the last ball she'll hit in Rod Laver Arena, the venue that has been so hospitable to her over the years. Clijsters has announced that this year is her last go-round, her final Australian Open. And while she's retired and unretired once before, you have to think the 28-year-old will stick to it this time.

Inasmuch as losing a winnable Grand Slam semifinal is a tough way to go out, Clijsters can take comfort knowing that she beat Li Na in the best women's match of the tournament and took out top-seeded Caroline Wozniacki. And there's this: The defensive tennis that served her so well has been imitated by the younger generation.

So, did anyone else feel a sense of déjà vu watching the match between Petra Kvitova and Sara Errani? It felt like a step back in time watching Mary Pierce and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario play. Kvitova shares a lot of tennis characteristics with Pierce, and Errani definitely reminded me of the Spanish bumblebee out there.-- Ted Ying, Laurel, Md.

• I'll give you Kvitova-Pierce, abetted by the physical resemblance. Sanchez Vicario was a multiple Grand Slam champ, though. Errani is ranked outside the top 50.

Gotta tell ya, Jon, in the middle of a difficult and oppressing day, I read your column today and was lifted up, most especially by the Urban Dictionary entries and their usage. Absolutely hilarious, on point and priceless! Keep up the good work!-- Jeff Johnson, Fort Worth

• I'll pick up some prizes here, and let's have a Tennis Urban Dictionary Contest. Check out Wednesday's column for an example.

Everybody gives David Ferrer credit for getting to No. 5 in the world based on hard work, not having huge weapons, etc., but he can't win a major (or get to the semis) because bigger, better players block his path. So why does everybody kill Caroline Wozniacki for a similar résumé -- she loses to Serena Williams, Clijsters, etc. It's not really her fault that the players better than her don't play enough to get more ranking points because of injury, indifference, motherhood, etc. If Wozniacki were No. 5, people might appreciate her grit?-- Mike, New York

• The critical difference, of course, is that Ferrer isn't No. 1. If he were ahead of the others without having reached a Grand Slam final while holding that exalted ranking, we can rest assured his position would have been scrutinized the same way.

You'll never guess which WTA player hit the most aces in 2011. Or at least, I never would've guessed.-- Phil, Long Island, N.Y.

• Wow. Good call.

So I take it that Agnieszka Radwanska and Maria Sharapova aren't friends?-- Lara, Boston

• It's like the line about comics: There are no friends. There are just colleagues who don't begrudge each other's success.

• A link to Tennis Channel's half-hour specialThe Making of 16-LOVE.

More on tennis scenes in movies:

• Badri Varadarajan, Mountain View, Calif.: "Begins and ends with Strangers on a Train, unless it happens to be the one of the two sobby, syrupy saps worldwide who watched Wimbledon.

• Matt, Brighton, England: "There is surely nothing better than Jacques Tati perfecting his service action in Mr. Hulot's Holiday. The table-tennis scene isn't bad, either."

• Anonymous: "Well, waiting for Open the movie. I hope Andre Agassi (to be specific, Steffi) gives in to the bidding Hollywood producers. It would be one heck of a movie if portrayed half as beautifully as the book. I think it depends of how comfortable Steffi feels with all this."

• Here is something more I found about the movie, 16-0 -- scroll to the end nevertheless, nice article in whole.

• Alex Walker, Conyers, Ga.: "Movies with tennis scenes? Wimbledon, of course, with Paul Bettany's terrible attempt at looking like a coordinated tennis player (also, the scene where her coach is trying to correct her serve, and Bettany mentions that 'she's dropping her left arm too early,' which would have been plainly obvious to any real-life coach, really bugged me). Also, Bridesmaids, (hilarious) the original Stepford Wives (on a green clay court) and Mr. Deeds, with Adam Sandler winning a point by hitting his opponent on the fly.

"I also saw The Making of 16-LOVE movie, and though I support the idea of it, the few seconds they show of the lead actress playing tennis is pretty miserable. Shouldn't a major requirement for starring in a tennis movie be to have experience at some high level, whether it's college or the pros?"

Then again, Kirsten Dunst pretended to be the world No. 1.

An interview with Rod Laver.

• RZ of Los Angeles sends along this link for live streaming of matches.

Fed Cup tickets on Groupon. Applaud, or lament that it's come to this?

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