Azarenka into women's final at Australian Open
Updated: January 26, 2012, 01:33
Send to a friend
MELBOURNE, Australia(AP) Victoria Azarenka reached her first Grand Slam final and staked a claim for the No. 1 ranking when she beat defending champion Kim Clijsters 6-4, 1-6, 6-3 in the Australian Open semifinals on Thursday.
The third-seeded Azarenka recovered her composure twice in periods when a resurgent Clijsters seemed to have the upper hand, breaking the veteran Belgian's serve three times in the third set to secure victory in only her second appearance in a major semifinal.
The 22-year-old Belarusian will play either Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova or 2008 Australian Open champion Maria Sharapova in the Saturday night final. Azarenka, Kvitova and Sharapova can all finish the tournament with the No. 1 ranking.
After a strong start, Azarenka's serve deserted her in the second set and Clijsters dictated play with her solid groundstrokes and some amazing defense.
But after getting the momentum back, it was Clijsters who blinked first in the third set, dropping serve in the second game and again in the fourth. She got two of those service games back, including one when she rallied from 40-0 down to win a game to get the score back to 4-3.
But Azarenka rallied immediately again, breaking serve. Serving for the match, she had three match points, double-faulting on her first, before clinching it on a Clijsters' error.
Azarenka threw her racket on the court and sank to her knees, bent over with her hands covering her face. Clijsters came around the net to congratulate her.
"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 choked back tears, then buried 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.''
Clijsters is a popular player in Australia, where she's widely known as "Aussie Kim.'' She had most of the backing from the crowd on the national holiday in what is likely to be her last Australian Open.
Azarenka held her nerve despite the crowd and the fact she was up against a proven big-match player. Clijsters has won four majors and has defended a Grand Slam title - winning back-to-back U.S. Opens in 2009 and '10. To reach the semifinals, she saved four match points despite a sprained ankle to beat French Open champion Li Na in the fourth round and then ousted top-ranked Caroline Wozniacki in the quarterfinals.
"I guess before you all thought I was a mental case. I was just young and emotional,'' Azarenka said in a courtside interview. "I'm really glad the way I fight, that's the most thing I'm really proud of. I fight for every ball.''
Clijsters credited Azarenka with increasing maturity.
"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. She was playing very aggressive tennis, moving really well. So she deserved to win at the end.''
The Sharapova-Kvitova semifinal was next match on Rod Laver Arena, with the men's semifinal between No. 2 Rafael Nadal and No. 3 Roger Federer following that.