It took six sets and nearly 4½ hours of nerve-frazzling, resolve-testing tennis to advance Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka to the Australian Open finals on Thursday.
Getting through to the semifinals for both women proved to be a test of endurance, a gut-check of will and patience, and a fantastic exposition of hard-hitting, high-level tennis. Sharapova defeated No. 2 Petra Kvitova, 6-2, 3-6, 6-4, while No. 3 Azarenka overcame Kim Clijsters, 6-4, 1-6, 6-3.
It's the first time Azarenka will play for a Grand Slam title, facing a three-time major winner in No. 4 Sharapova. The winner of the match will become the world's top-ranked player. And given the decibel level of shrieks and screams on every hit from Sharapova and Azarenka, prepare for the dogs, cats and bats in the neighborhood to run for cover during Saturday's final. It's guaranteed to be loud at the start and ear-splitting by the end, since both players ratchet up the decibels as matches progress.
Both semifinals carried similar refrains: Be the aggressor or lose the point. Play it safe, and you will lose the point. The margin for error was small, and the notion of playing it safe only produced trouble.
Azarenka outhit Clijsters, which is not an easy thing to do, and dominated her in the first set. Clijsters couldn't handle Azarenka's pace and was forced well behind the baseline to play defensive tennis as she lost the first set. But Clijsters adjusted and recovered in the second and began blasting her groundstrokes past Azarenka. The second set flew by Azarenka, as her effective serve disintegrated and she appeared a bit shell-shocked at the turn of events.
It looked like a true battle to the finish in the third set but ended up petering out in a whimper for Clijsters. Azarenka switched her game on again, and the pace was again too much for Clijsters. The long rallies pushed both players to the limit, forcing Clijsters to go for too much to try to end things with a winner. Unfortunately, Clijsters could not control the point to that degree, thanks to Azarenka's power and sharp angles.
Azarenka ended up breaking Clijsters' serve three times in the third set, during which Clijsters made 21 unforced errors. When Azarenka won match point, she sunk to her knees and became emotional. She had defeated a very tough and smart player in Clijsters, and the reward was her first Grand Slam final.
It also was a bittersweet ending for defending champion Clijsters, who has said this would be the last Australian Open of her career. The Aussies always have loved Clijsters, dating back to years ago when she was engaged to Lleyton Hewitt. "Aussie Kim," as the Down Under press has dubbed her, made a great run in this major, but she couldn't overcome the tough-slugging Azarenka.
After the match, in a courtside interview with Australian TV, Azarenka revealed how the magnitude of playing in the semifinals impacted her.
"I felt like my hand was about 200 kilograms [440 pounds] and my body is about 1,000 [2,220 pounds] and everything is shaking," Azarenka said. "But that feeling when you finally win is such a relief. My God, I cannot believe it is over. I just want to cry."
Sharapova is a much cooler customer with her public emotions, but she probably can privately relate to Azarenka. Her match against Kvitova had many layers, with some traceable to Sharapova losing the 2011 Wimbledon final in straight sets to her.
As is her usual game plan, Sharapova came out to overwhelm Kvitova with her powerful groundstrokes. Kvitova wasn't entirely comfortable with having the ball whipped at her and committed unforced errors. The first set went by without much resistance for Sharapova.
Kvitova found her form in the second set, hitting the heavy, flat shots and tough, wide-slicing lefty serves that had made her unbeatable to that point in Australian Open. The long rallies were now being won through Kvitova's aggressiveness, which was trumping Sharapova's. Kvitova punctuated her second set comeback by winning its final point with an ace, then unleashing a primal scream.
Like Azarenka, Sharapova figured out a way to win in her third set. The rallies continued to be drawn out and exhausting, but Sharapova had the mental strength in the final games to play in control. Kvitova's nerves betrayed her in the final game, when she lost two points by dumping groundstrokes into the bottom of the net.
Sharapova clearly relished the victory, beaming a huge smile and pumping her fist in triumph. Getting back to the Australian Open final, for the first time since she won the tournament in 2008, is a major accomplishment. Her surgically repaired shoulder, which is tough for players to come back from and still play top tennis, is not haunting her right now. Sharapova is playing with confidence, and her experience allowed her to overcome Kvitova.
"Sometimes even when you're not playing your best tennis, you can find a way to win," Sharapova told the BBC after her semifinal match. "No matter how good or bad you play, you just try to win your point, and that's what I tried to do."