MELBOURNE, Australia --
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.
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.
"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.
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?
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."
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.
? 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.
? I hear she had planned to take a break after the 2012 Paralympics. Now she is taking it.
? 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.
? 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.
? Fair point that goes both ways.
? 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.
? 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.' "
? Someone else wrote something similar. I'm sticking up for McEnroe. What am I missing? Seems reasonable to me.
? Consider it shouted. Great career.
? 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 ...