Tennis: Li, Azarenka will face off in women's final of Australian Open
Melbourne, Australia • Li Na used the heat to her advantage and worked No. 2-ranked Maria Sharapova around Rod Laver Arena in a 6-2, 6-2 win on Thursday that put her in the Australian Open final for the second time in three years.
Sharapova was the heavy favorite after conceding only nine games in her first five matches, a record at the Australian Open.
But the semifinal started badly for the 25-year-old Russian, serving double-faults to lose the first two points and conceding a break in the first game.
Li will now play top-ranked Victoria Azarenka, the defending champion, who beat 19-year-old American Sloane Stephens 6-1, 6-4 in the later semifinal.
Azarenka wasted five match points in the ninth game of the second set, then took a medical timeout for what appeared to be a back or shoulder injury. She had hurt her left ankle earlier in the set. She returned to win the match on her sixth match point, breaking Stephens' serve in the final game.
Azarenka admitted she was nervous at 5-3, and "I almost did the choke of the year!"
Stephens was an upset winner over 15-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams in the quarterfinals Wednesday.
Li was the first Chinese player to reach a Grand Slam final when she lost to Kim Clijsters at Melbourne Park in 2011. She had her breakthrough a few months later when she won the French Open, beating Sharapova in the semifinals along the way.
The crowd got behind Li early in the match, yelling "Come on, Li Na!" and others yelling "Jia You!" which is "Come on" in Chinese.
"I don't know what happened [but] I always play well here, so thanks guys," said Li, playing her third Australian Open semifinal in four years.
The temperature topped 93 degrees, and the speed of the court surface suited Li's game.
Li broke Sharapova in the third game of the second set and served an ace to move within a point of a 4-2 lead, but lost the next three points to give her opponent a break opportunity.
Two big second serves took Sharapova by surprise, and Li fended off the challenge.
Sharapova admitted it was hard to get into the match against Li.
"She was certainly much more aggressive than I was, dictating the play. I was always on the defense," said Sharapova, who could have gained the No. 1 ranking by reaching the Australian final. "When I had my opportunities and break points in games that went to deuce, I don't think any of them really went my way."
Top-ranked Novak Djokovic will continue his bid for a third consecutive Australian title when he takes on No. 4 David Ferrer on Thursday. No. 2 Roger Federer and No. 3 Andy Murray will meet Friday.
O China's Li Na reaches the Australian Open final for the second time in three years by defeating Russia's Maria Sharapova.
• American Sloane Stephens, who had defeated Serena Williams in the quarterfinals, fell to Victoria Azarenka in their Thursday semifinal.
O Men's semifinal, 10 a.m. (tape) & 1:30 a.m., ESPN