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Tennis

Azarenka, Li overwhelm Stephens, Sharapova to reach final

Photo: Andrew Brownbill/AP

Victoria Azarenka aims to become the third woman this century to win back-to-back Australian Opens.

MELBOURNE, Australia -- Five thoughts on the women's semifinals at the Australian Open, where Victoria Azarenka (6-1, 6-4 over Sloane Stephens) and Li Na (6-2, 6-2 over Maria Sharapova) advanced to Saturday's final. ...

1. Azarenka's antics. First, a bit of credit. Placed in a potentially dangerous situation -- facing a young opponent, fat with confidence and attention, playing with house money -- Azarenka smothered Stephens on Thursday, never letting her take control of the match despite a late comeback. She smacked Stephens' second serve as if it were propped on a tee. She ran Stephens ragged.

She not only neutralized whatever game plan Stephens brought but also killed her spirit. She won the first set in barely half an hour. (And Azarenka has won her last 60 matches when she's taken the first set.) By late in the second, it looked to be the kind of performance that a champion turns in, playing with authority and draining all the fight from a younger opponent.

Then at 5-3, Azarenka was overwhelmed by the occasion. "I almost did the choke of the year," she said. She let five match points go by, overcooking and undercooking strokes, looking more like a nervous junior than a No. 1. Broken at 5-4, she took a highly questionable injury timeout, leaving the court for what was clearly a mental health break. To say it was a highly questionable bit of gamesmanship would be understating it. She returned and, still looking nervous, held on. Not her finest moment. Still, with Serena Williams -- her bugbear -- out of the draw and nursing her own ankle injury -- Azarenka now has a prime opportunity to defend her title.

Azarenka's medical timeout stirs controversy

2. Hello, Whirled. Stephens' Excellent Australian Adventure is over. A day after staring down Williams in one of the bigger upsets in recent history, she regressed to the mean. That is, she played like a talented, athletic, highly mobile 19-year-old who will be a star one day, but isn't quite there yet. She didn't choke. She didn't wilt in the heat. But, sluggish and drained, she simply wasn't at Azarenka's level for this final four match. Stephens sprayed balls, played impatiently and unimaginatively and was unable to handle Azarenka's power, especially on her second serve. Despite a spirited comeback late in the match, she fell.

We talk about physical recovery in tennis, but there's an element of emotional recovery as well. In the last 24 hours, Stephens' profile (and Twitter following and net worth) has ballooned. Her phone blew up. She heard from Shaq. She was featured on the morning shows. She made more than $500,000. It's a lot for any player -- but especially a 19-year-old -- to insulate herself from this and then try to play another big match. Stephens wasn't up to it. She leaves here, though, as the darling of the tournament, a newly minted star, the next American hope. It was a smashing event for her. Just not on this day.

Analysis, highlights of Azarenka's win

3. We all need somebody to Li Na. In the first semifinal, Li played one of the better matches of her career, taking out Sharapova in a match that felt somehow closer and more lopsided than the score would suggest. This was Li at her best, turning in a wonderfully complete performance. She slugged away from both wings -- including her forehand, which tends to go off target; sliced her serves out wide to open the court; and, a month from age 31, played brilliant defense when necessary, clearly the better athlete. Match statistics can be misleading, but she had more winners than Sharapova, who goes for broke on every shot, and almost half as many errors.

"She was aggressive, taking the first ball ... playing confident, aggressive tennis," Sharapova said. "That's probably the best that she's played against me."

Yet, this was ultimately a mental victory. Li is famously streaky, but she has been the picture of poise in Melbourne. No outbursts. No drama. Just clinical tennis. On Thursday, she showed off her gifts and garnished them with an impregnable mental performance. (Thanks, coach Carlos Rodriguez!) The result is her second trip to the final in three years.

Analysis, highlights of Li's win

4. A problem like Maria. Strange tournament for Sharapova. Which is in keeping with her rhythms these days. She wins the French Open; then she gets bounced early from Wimbledon and positively steamrolled by Serena at the Olympics. She drops nine games in her first five matches in Melbourne, giving no quarter, barely tested. In the semifinal, she musters just four games against a player she'd beaten three straight times. She was thoroughly outplayed in every dimension.

For all of Sharapova's virtues, there's not a lot of versatility in her game. When Plan A doesn't work, she reverts to ... Plan A. Under oppressively hot conditions Thursday, she didn't move particularly well. And her power strokes missed their targets. She did little to adjust. No junk. No ventures to the net. No spin. A lot of disgusted looks to her camp but not much in the way of adjustment. Where does she go from here?

5. Ladies night. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga lost a thoroughly entertaining match to Roger Federer on Wednesday and then committed an unforced error in the media room, declaring that women players were "unstable emotionally" because "hormones and all this stuff." We roll our eyes but ultimately sling Tsonga some slack here because a) he is a good guy, b) he is speaking in a foreign tongue after a tough match and c) silly as the sentiment might be, other -- female -- commentators have ventured here, too.

Lost in this controversy was the flawed premise of the setup question: "Seems like very often in the last four or five years on the men's side it's been the top four seeds getting to the semifinals. Hasn't happened that much on the women's side."

Huh?

Here are the women's semis: We had the top two seeds. A third semifinalist was the No. 6 player who has won a major within the last two years. The fourth was a talented 19-year-old -- sufficiently accomplished that she was already seeded -- who knocked off Williams. Not exactly anarchy. In fact, you could argue that this is an ideal mix of talent, nationality, ethnicity, age and style. On Saturday night, Li, a relentlessly candid player from China, plays the defending champ. If that's unstable, we'll take it.

Azarenka called out for medical timeout

Mailbag

The difference between the way Novak Djokovic acted after he beat Stanislas Wawrinka in their five-set thriller compared to the way Federer acted after he beat Tsonga in their five-setter is why Federer is a great, beloved champion and Djokovic is a great player.-- Michelle, Colorado

? To each his own. Storm back to win a match 12-10 in the fifth set, and I have no problem with emoting and shirt-ripping. By the same token, Federer's dignified response Wednesday night was telling.

Where is Esther Vergeer? -- Aline Gomez, Hermosillo, Mexico

? I hear she had planned to take a break after the 2012 Paralympics. Now she is taking it.

Please tell certain TV commentators to quit saying Roger Federer is better today than six, seven years ago. He is much more inconsistent today. His forehand, especially, is more erratic. Enough with the chip backhand return on second serves already. Don't get me wrong, he's still great. But better than 25-year-old Federer? Please. -- Mike Pocrnic, Mississauga, Ontario

? I think Federer is better than he was in 2011. I don't think he's better than he was at age 25, when he was winning three majors a year. Wednesday night was great fun, but Federer won with an A-plus effort and B-minus game. His serve deserted him at times; his forehand broke down in spurts; as you note, he chipped back most serves to the backhand. The bright side: It speaks well of him that, at age 31, he can play less than his best and still beat a player of Tsonga's caliber.

Speaking of Rafael Nadal and predictive seeding, imagine you're doing Roland Garros this year. What's the right call if Nadal comes into Paris ranked, say, sixth? Do you bump him to No. 1 based on his stellar past performance, or do you leave him as a havoc-wreaking floater?-- Lacey, Greenville, S.C.

? Good question. Ideally, this is a non-issue. Nadal racks up points at these South American events, does well in Indian Wells and Miami, romps on clay as always and has enough points to re-enter the top four. The notion of a seven-time champ (who's lost one match at Roland Garros his entire career) coming in as a No. 6 seed is, yes, incongruous. And a draw-buster.

Not trying to be jingoistic, but why can't the majors show the service speed in both mph and kmh? -- Randy B., Sandy Springs, Ga.

? Fair point that goes both ways.

Why is it that when top players like Djokovic, Federer, Marat Safin, Marcos Baghdatis, Caroline Wozniacki and Vera Zvonereva smash their rackets during a match it's deemed normal, but when it's Serena the responses turn sexist and racist? -- Andrew, Hawthorn

? I missed the sexist, racist responses. You wish players didn't wreck their equipment, but Serena wasn't the first and won't be the last. File this under "not a big deal."

Here's my issue: When I played competitively and saw a player smacking his racket, I knew I had him on the ropes. Not sure why Serena (and others) would give away this mental edge.

I find the shrieking in women's tennis a non-issue. I usually just mute it or put the volume down, which has the added advantage of not having to hear Pam Shriver, Mary Joe Fernandez or Chris Evert. -- Tobin, Boston

? You're in the minority. Your opinion is welcome nonetheless. Here's Eric Bukzin of Manorville, N.Y.: "I think Martina Navratilova said it best during one of the match broadcasts with Azarenka: 'Grunting is a habit. It's not a necessity.' "

I'm surprised that Patrick McEnroe's tweet request during the Federer/Milos Raonic match, where he asked, "What do you think Federer's drop shot means?" hasn't been addressed. I actually found it rather tasteless to begin with, and it got worse when he started gleefully reading them on air. -- Joe, Madison, Wis.

? Someone else wrote something similar. I'm sticking up for McEnroe. What am I missing? Seems reasonable to me.

I realize I am biased here, but no mention of the retirement of Mark Knowles? He is arguably one of the five or six best doubles players in the past 15 years and a great ambassador for the Bahamas. Heck, he even got a mention in Andre Agassi's Open. Please, give him a shout-out.-- Chris Dion, Beijing, (via Nassau, Bahamas)

? Consider it shouted. Great career.

I'm becoming intrigued by the unexpected run of "Casey and the Kid." Do you think they can make it all the way to the doubles championship?-- Linda, New York

? Linda refers to the Aussie team of Ashleigh Barty and Casey Dellacqua, the surprise women's doubles finalists. It's been a fun story to follow, especially as the Aussies (save Bernard Tomic) flamed out so early in singles. It's a strange team. Dellacqua has some nice skills; Barteigh is a 16-year-old, just swinging away. They'll be the underdogs in the final against Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci, the top seedettes. But who knows what'll happen. You know, women and their hormones and all ...

Stephens makes Australia newspapers' front pages

GALLERY: Photos of Sloane Stephens

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