Melbourne: China’s Li Na sent a wayward Maria Sharapova crashing out of the Australian Open semi-finals on Thursday and says there will be no repeat of her capitulation to Kim Clijsters in the 2011 Melbourne Park final.
Li crushed second seed Sharapova 6-2, 6-2 at Rod Laver Arena, overpowering the in-form Russian in a breathtaking display of power hitting to set up her second title shot at Melbourne Park against defending champion Victoria Azarenka.
Azarenka, on the other hand, brought Sloane Stephens’s Melbourne Park fairytale to an end, but the defending champion came under fire for taking an injury timeout just as her nerves appeared to desert her.
Azarenka looked to have injured her left knee early in the second set of her 6-1, 6-4 victory over the American teenager, but did not seek medical treatment until she blew five match points while serving for the match at 5-3.
The world No.1 used the medical timeout to have a rib and knee injury checked, though in a courtside interview after her win she made no mention of the injuries and said her frayed nerves had almost prompted “the choke of the year”.
Two years ago, Li was in the box seat to beat Clijsters after taking the first set, but crumbled under the pressure and took her frustrations out on Chinese fans.
“(In) 2011, (the) first time to the grand slam final, I was a little bit shocked because I didn't know what I should do,” Li told reporters.
“Also no one told me what I should do on the court. But this time I've got more experience, so I think I should be better.”
The stinging loss to Clijsters spurred Li to win her sole major title at Roland Garros a few months later, but the 30-year-old Chinese had endured more than 18 months in the Grand Slam wilderness until her stunning revival in Melbourne.
Much of Li’s struggles have been between the ears, struggling to deal with the heightened expectations from her home country of 1.3 billion people, but few nerves were on display as the sixth seed demolished Sharapova in one hour and 33 minutes in 34 Celsius (93F) heat.
Sharapova had charged into the semi-final like a freight train, conceding only nine games in the tournament and bullying a succession of weaker opponents.
But Li quickly took the wind out of her sails, breaking Sharapova three times to wrap up the first set, then weathered a fierce challenge on her own serve in the second before coolly closing out the second match-point when the Russian found the net.
Four-times Grand Slam champion Sharapova finished with 17 winners and 32 unforced errors, and with her tactic of attacking Li’s forehand failing to come off, threw frustrated glances at her Swedish coach Thomas Hogstedt, former mentor to Li.
“I think she played a really great match. She was certainly much more aggressive than I was, dictating the play. I was always on the defence,” Sharapova told reporters.
“There’s no reason why she can’t win (the title).”
Moving on to the other match, Azarenka was bombarded with questions about the incident at her post-match media conference as reporters asked if she had exploited the injury timeout rules to help settle her nerves.
“I’m telling you what happened right now honestly, that my back was bothering me,” Azarenka said. “It took me too long of a time to call the trainer, which was my mistake. I took it to the point where I couldn’t breathe, which was causing from my back problem, and I couldn’t really figure out what was going on on the court.
“When the trainer told me that was the rib that was blocking that, my back, that’s what happened.”
The 2012 Australian Open champion said her on-court comments could be attributed to misunderstanding the question in the heat of having won the match. (Agencies)