Sloane Stephens of the United States of America plays a forehand in her Semifinal match against Victoria Azarenka of Belarus during day eleven of the 2013 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 24, 2013 in Melbourne, Australia.
(January 23, 2013 – Source: Quinn Rooney/Getty Images AsiaPac)
(PhatzRadio / SI) — MELBOURNE, Australia — Five thoughts on the women’s semifinals at the Australian Open, where Victoria Azarenka (6-1, 6-4 over Sloane Stephens) nd Li Na (6-2, 6-2 over Maria Sharapova) advanced to Saturday’s final. …
1. Azarenka’s antics. First, a bit of credit. Placed in a potentially dangerous situation — facing a young opponent, fat with confidence and attention, playing with house money — Azarenka smothered Stephens, never letting her take control of the match despite a late comeback. She smacked Stephens’ second serve as if were propped on a tee. She ran Stephens ragged.
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.
2. Hello, Whirled. Stephens’ Excellent Australian Adventure is over. A day after staring down Serena Williams in one of the bigger upsets in recent history, she regressed to the mean today. That is, she played like a talented, athletic, highly mobile 19-year-old, who will be a star one day; but isn’t quite there yet. She didn’t choke. She didn’t wilt in the heat. But, sluggish and drained, she simply wasn’t at Azarenka’s level for this final four match. Spraying balls, playing impatiently and unimaginatively and unable to handle Azarenka’s power, especially on her second serve. Despite a spirited comeback late in the match, she fell.
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 and 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 today.
3. We all need somebody to Li Na. In the first semifinal, Li played one of the better matches of her career, taking out Sharapova in a match that felt somehow closer and more lopsided than the score would suggest. This was Li at her best, turning in a wonderfully complete performance. She slugged away from both wings — including her forehand, which tends to go off target; sliced her serves out wide to open the court; and, a month from age 30, played brilliant defense when necessary, clearly the better athlete. Match statistics can be misleading, but she had more winners than Sharapova, who goes for broke on every shot, and almost half as many errors.
“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. Today 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.
4. A problem like Maria. Strange tournament for Sharapova. Which is in keeping with her rhythms these days. She wins the French Open; then she gets bounced early from Wimbledon and positively steamrolled by Serena at the Olympics. She drops nine games in her first five matches in Melbourne, giving no quarter, barely tested. In the semifinal, she musters just four games against a player she’d beaten three straight times coming in. She was thoroughly outplayed in every dimension.
For all Sharapova’s virtues, there’s not a lot of versatility in her game. When Plan A doesn’t work, she reverts to … Plan A. Thursday, under oppressively hot conditions, 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?
5. Ladies night. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga lost a thoroughly entertaining match to Roger Federer on Wednesday and then committed an unforced error in the media room, declaring that women players were “unstable emotionally” because “hormones and all this stuff.” We roll our eyes but ultimately sling Tsonga some slack here because a) he is a good guy, b) he is speaking in a foreign tongue after a tough match and c) silly as the sentiment might be, other — female — commentators have ventured here, too.
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 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 Serena 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 Na, a relentlessly candid Chinese plays the defending champ. If that unstable, we’ll take it.