China’s Li Na has reached the Australian Open Finals for the second time by handling 2nd-ranked Maria Sharapova in straight sets. She will face top-ranked Victoria Azarenka who overcame US teen Sloane Stephens.
On an intensely hot summer day in Rod Laver Arena Sharapova was the first to show a loss of cool by double-faulting on her first two service points. That bolstered Li’s composure, allowing her to dish out the groundstroke winners that seemed to bewilder Sharapova, earning Li an early service break.
From the first points it was apparent that the Russian’s game plan was to keep the ball away from Li’s stingingly precise backhand. Unfortunately for her, on this day Li’s normally erratic forehand proved to be rock-steady, allowing her to achieve a surprising 6-2, 6-2 win over a player against whom she has compiled her worst head-to-head record.
After dropping the first set Sharapova seemed to regain her composure at the start of the second. Both players held their first two service games. But in the fifth game Li seemed better able to expend the energy for the seasaw battle. Through a combination of her superior footspeed and precise, line-painting forehands, she eked out a service break. When Sharapova failed to return the favor in the sixth game, the match seemed all but over.
Every rally showed the changes that had been wrought on Li’s game by her new coach Carlos Rodriguez. Her groundstrokes had more topspin, allowing them to clear the net with a bigger margin of safety. Rather than going for outright winners, Li constructed her points, allowing her to move Sharapova out of position before placing the money shot. She also avoided the kind of negative body language that often set her on track to losing her composure.
At 5-2 40-all, Li even managed an ace to get to match point. A discouraged Sharapova then dumped her return into the net for a perfect punctuation to a match that Li had played as flawlessly as any deep into a Grand Slam.
By entering the final Li has moved up to no. 5 in the world from her pre-tournament 6th ranking. She has a 4-5 head-to-head record against Azarenka. If she beats her on Saturday, Li will have two Grand Slams under her belt and move into the no. 4 spot. If she loses, she may flash back to her 2011 Australian Open final loss to Kim Clijsters. Last year she lost to Clijsters in the round of 16.