Azarenka to meet Sharapova in final

Victoria Azarenka celebrates after defeating Kim Clijsters in their Australian Open semifinal match...

Victoria Azarenka celebrates after defeating Kim Clijsters in their Australian Open semifinal match in Melbourne on Thursday, Jan. 26, 2012. (MARK BLINCH/Reuters)

SPORTS NETWORK

, Last Updated: 9:47 AM ET

MELBOURNE - Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova will square off in Saturday's women's Australian Open final after they both survived tense three-set semifinal matches on Thursday.

Azarenka, seeded third, ended Kim Clijsters' run at consecutive Australian Open titles by besting the four-time Grand Slam champion, 6-4, 1-6, 6-3, at Rod Laver Arena.

After that battle, Sharapova downed second-seeded Petra Kvitova 6-2, 3-6, 6-4 to avenge her loss to the Czech in last year's Wimbledon finale.

The winner of Saturday's title match will become the new world No. 1, supplanting Clijsters' quarterfinal victim, Caroline Wozniacki. Sharapova has not held the top ranking since the week of June 8, 2007.

Kvitova beat Sharapova in straight sets to win her first Grand Slam last July, but trailed early against the three-time major titlist on Thursday at Melbourne Park.

The 21-year-old Kvitova missed wildly on an overhead smash to lose her second service game, the first of three breaks for Sharapova in the opening set.

Sharapova, seeded fourth, lost the second set, and was down 0-30 at 4-4 in the third before a replay reversal gave her new life. The Russian won the next four points to put the pressure back on Kvitova, who could not hold serve thanks to several unforced errors in the final game.

"In the third set, I felt she always had the advantage because I was always down on my serve," said Sharapova, who piled up five double faults in the third set and 10 in the match. "I just told myself "You just gotta go for it, don't let her finish off the points like she likes to."'

The former world No. 1 Sharapova's last major title came at the 2008 Aussie Open. The Russian was the Aussie runner-up in 2007.

The 22-year-old Azarenka, meanwhile, became the first Belarusian woman to reach a Grand Slam final since Natasha Zvereva was the runner-up at Roland Garros in 1988 when she was representing the Soviet Union.

In doing so, Azarenka ended another memorable performance Down Under by Clijsters, who has stated she will retire after the Summer Olympics in London.

If this was, in fact, the Belgian's final visit to the season's first major, she went down fighting. Azarenka broke Clijsters' second service game of the match, then fought off four break chances in the proceeding game.

Azarenka held serve with relative ease the rest of the opening set to stay in the driver's seat, but Clijsters began her comeback by breaking at love on Azarenka's first service game in the second.

Clijsters, the 11th seed, quickly evened the match before falling behind 4-1 in the third. She held serve and trailed 40-0 in the next game before earning another break to get back on serve.

But Azarenka, riding a 10-match winning streak after winning in Sydney earlier this month, earned her fourth break of the match to serve for a spot in the final.

"I felt like my hand is about 200 kilograms and my body is about 1,000 and everything is shaking, but that feeling when you finally win is such a relief. My God I cannot believe it's over. I just want to cry," Azarenka said as she fought off tears, then put her face in a towel.

"It was just trying to stay in the moment. Kim really took over the second set and I felt there was nothing I could do. I just tried to regroup," Azarenka added.

In the quarterfinals, Clijsters fought off four match points against last year's Aussie runner-up to her, Li Na.

A repeat performance was not meant to be, as Clijsters was wide on match point to end any chance at becoming the eighth woman to repeat as Aussie champion.

"The match was very close. There were a few deciding moments where I think I maybe had a little bit of an advantage, in the third set, especially that first game where I had break point," Clijsters said. "But she definitely played really well. So she deserved to win at the end."

Both semifinal matches lasted 2 hours, 12 minutes on Australia Day.

Azarenka and Sharapova have split six career matchups, with two of Azarenka's wins coming in finals. Saturday will mark their first-ever Grand Slam meeting.

Sharapova is 3-2 in her career Grand Slam finals. Her other titles came at Wimbledon in 2004 and the 2006 U.S. Open. The Russian bomber is 24-13 in her career finals overall.

Azarenka is 9-8 in her career finals, including 1-0 this year.


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