What is it about Li Na and Australia? The 2011 Australian Open finalist played one of the best matches of her career to upset No. 2 seed Maria Sharapova 6-2, 6-2 in the first women's semifinal on Thursday. While both players cruised into the match having not dropped a set, Li put the pressure on Sharapova quickly, breaking her in the first game of the match and never looked back. Sharapova, who had lost a mere nine games in the tournament coming into this match, never recovered from that early pressure and the Li held her nerve for what turned out to be a comprehensive win in an hour and 33 minutes.
Game-by-game analysis after the jump.
11:14 p.m ET | Li Na defeats Maria Sharapova 6-2, 6-2.
Sharapova is clearly doubting her gameplan. She wanted to attack that Li forehand and it's not working. Li is anticipating and handling it well. It was the right gameplan over the years but maybe Rodriguez really has fixed it and Li's newfound calmness on court makes it less prone to break down in pressure moments. With that gameplan failing, Sharapova looks lost out there. Not sure staring at her box is going to help.
Li earns her first match point but goes for glory on an inside out forehand that she pulls wide. Would have been an epic shot to finish the upset if she made it.
An ace earns her Match Point No. 2. Sharapova fires a backhand return into the tape and Li Na is into her second Australian Open final. That was a perfect performance from a player who has always had the tools but rarely the head to pull these results off. That was a beating on every metric.
Final stat line: Li hit 21 winners to 18 unforced errors to go +3 on the match. Sharapova never cleaned up her game, hitting 17 winners to 32 unforced errors for a dismal -15. Again Li's points won on second serve remained off the charts, finishing the match at 63 percent to Sharapova's 25 percent. Li kept on the pressure and Sharapova never had a chance to breathe.
11:09 p.m ET | Li breaks, leads 5-2.
Hello! Sharapova's clearly had enough of this. She comes out blasting on Li's service game, saving two game points to force deuce. Li works the slice second serve out wide perfectly though, so well that she even gets her normally stoic coach Rodriguez to smile, fistpump, and pound his chest to urge her on. Li holds to consolidate her break. She's two points away from her second final in three years.
Once again Sharapova can't close her own service games without drama. Li saves game points with some great defense to force deuce, and Sharapova misfires badly on a forehand to give Li a break point. She converts by yanking Sharapova around and earning a backhand error into the net.
The upset is on, folks. Li Na will serve for the match.
10:55 p.m ET | Li breaks, leads 3-2.
For the fifth time in the match, Sharapova can't close out a match in which she's had a game point. Had a couple of game points to hold her serve and gets broken. This is officially panic time for the Sharapova camp. She is getting absolutely walloped in every facet of the game by the 30-year old Li.
Speaking of which...
10:44 p.m ET | Sharapova leads 2-1.
Sharapova once again has a look at a break but Li fends her off to hold. All on-serve to start the second set.
Looking back, here's the stat line for the 1st set. Li hit 14 winners to 9 unforced errors while Sharapova hit 10 winners to 17 unforced errors. Sharapova has to clean that up. But the most incredible stat: Li won winning 77 percent of her second serve points. You're happy if you're winning that on your first serve, let alone your second. By comparison, Sharapova won 20 percent. That's probably why she got broken three times.
And in case you believe in foreshadowing, ESPN's Chris McKendry has this stat:
10:28 p.m ET | Li wins the first set 6-2.
Sharapova tries to hit herself out of the nerves and pressure she must be feeling and it doesn't work. She misfires on two easy returns and then sends an easy backhand into the net to give Li three set points. She finishes off the set with...wait for it...a forehand winner.
Tremendous set for Li and precisely what she needed to get into Sharapova's head.
Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal's Tom Perotta with some real talk:
10:25 p.m ET | Li leads 5-2.
On ESPN, Darren Cahill says Sharapova is going to the forehand too much. He's right. Li's sitting on that side of the court waiting for it. That forehand is solid when Li gets her feet to hit it, it's horrible when she gets on the run and has to make the minor adjustments to hit it right. In other words, Sharapova needs to go to the backhand side to pull her wide, and then attack the forehand.
Sharapova earns two break points and Li saves them. She's just stronger in the rallies. I don't think Sharapova has won any rally that's lasted more than eight shots. But she's still got a chance in the short ones. She finally breaks after a great backhand return catches Li by surprise.
Sharapova looked well on her way to an easy hold but a few errors creep in as she tries to close and she's at deuce. Li is eating up Sharapova's second serve, which the Russian is firing at her forehand almost every time. Li's anticipating it, shading over, and hitting it for winners. She gets the break back after a long deuce game. That's three straight breaks for Li.
This is some great resilience from her. Meanwhile, Sharapova's shooting some forlorn looks at her box.
10:09 p.m ET | Li breaks, leads 4-1.
Sharapova hasn't been tested at all this tournament and she's in for a long day if Li keeps this up. Through the first five games, Li has put Sharapova on defense. The Russian can't get control of any of the rallies and is reacting to everything as Li dictates from the baseline. Li holds at love and immediately gets into another Sharapova service game.
Sharapova needs to attack and break down the Li forehand, a strong but streaky shot at best. She goes right at it on the first point of her serve and Li answers with a forehand down the line winner. Oops. Nevermind.
Her third doublefault of the match puts her into another 0-30 hole and Sharapova's into a multiple deuce game again. This time she saves a break point by going to Li's forehand, as Li sends it long. But then she fires a big first serve wide to Li's forehand side and Li lunges and whips a lazer down the line for a winner. In other words, that wing hasn't broken down yet, but Sharapova has to keep going at it.
Li breaks again and she's got a two break lead. That's a nice cushion for a player who's known to go off the boil when the finish line approaches.
Eurosport again reporting it's about 112 degrees on court and it's only getting hotter. We sure they're not measuring under Maria's collar?
9:55 p.m ET | Li leads 2-1.
Fantastic running forehand winner from Sharapova earns her two break-back points. Li answers by stepping into the court and leaning in to a clean backhand crosscourt winner to save one, and her deep hitting earns another error from Sharapova to get to deuce. Li so far looks the stronger of the two off the ground. Her lateral movement is firing early and Sharapova's finding it tough to hit through her. She saves those break points to hold to 2-0.
Down 0-2, Sharapova fires her first ace of the match and finally gets on the board.
9:48 p.m ET | Li breaks, leads 1-0.
Sharapova opens with back-to-back double-faults, missing her first five serves. It probably doesn't help that some idiot in the crowd is loudly mocking her shrieking. Sharapova rebounds earn game point but Li saves it with a beautiful backhand down the line. As I wrote in my preview, Li will need that shot to open up the court. Li gets it to deuce and eventually breaks to start. This is exactly what she needed.
A reminder of the off-court intrigue of this match-up: Sharapova's coach, Thomas Hogstedt used to be Li Na's coach, while Li's current coach, Carlos Rodriguez famously coached former No. 1 Justine Henin, one of Sharapova's biggest rivals. And then there's the complicated issue of Max Eisenbud, agent extraordinaire for IMG, who represents both women. Matt Cronin of TennisReporters.net reported Eisenbud would be sitting in Sharapova's box today, while an IMG China representative will sit in Li's.
9:36 p.m ET | Pre-match warm-up
As ESPN2 is still stuck on college basketball, Li Na and Maria Sharapova are walking out to Rod Laver Arena. Li looks pretty relaxed, nothing but smiles as she waits for the fashionably late Sharapova. Neither players should feel anything other than the natural nerves of playing a big match on a big stage. This is Sharapova's 16th Slam semifinal and Li's 4th semifinal.
Temperatures are hot on court, with Eurosport reporting it's 86 degrees as rising. I've seen prior reports of the court temperature already exceeding 100 degrees. Shouldn't affect either of these players, both of whom handle the heat well. It's something to look for later in the second semifinal though, as Victoria Azarenka has a history of wilting in the heat.
Li wins the toss and elects to receive. She wants a crack at that Sharapova serve early.
Maria Sharapova and Li Na will meet in the first of two women's semifinals on Thursday at the Australian Open. The match is scheduled to begin at 9:30 p.m. ET and will be televised on ESPN2. The winner will advance to play Victoria Azarenka or Sloane Stephens in the final.
Neither player has dropped a set entering the match. In fact, Sharapova has lost only nine games in five matches, an Australian Open record since the tournament went to a 128-player draw in 1988. Meanwhile, Li has dispatched three seeds to reach her third Australian Open semifinal, including a quarterfinal victory against Agnieszka Radwanska, who had been 13-0 this year.
Sharapova leads their head-to-head 8-4, and while Li won four in a row from 2009 through 2011, she’s never taken a set off Sharapova on outdoor hard courts. Sharapova won their three matches last year, which included two bagel sets.