China's Li Na shocked Maria Sharapova on Thursday to set up an Australian Open final against 2012 champion Victoria Azarenka, who beat teenager Sloane Stephens in controversial circumstances.
Li, Asia's first Grand Slam singles champion, came out firing and halted Sharapova's
storming run with a blaze of aggression which stunned the four-time major champion 6-2, 6-2.
The Chinese world No 6, who reaches her second Melbourne final, now has a chance to add to her historic 2011 French Open crown which brought tennis to public attention in her home country. "After playing for 20 years, this is the first time in my life," she said, when asked if she'd played a perfect match.
"At the beginning of the match I was nervous. I was happy I was back in the semis again, but for some reason I really wanted to win this match. I don't know what happened. I just came to the court, feeling like, 'OK, just do it'."
Sharapova had lost only nine games in her march to the semi-finals, a tournament record, but Li was always going to provide a far sterner test despite trailing 4-8 in their head-to-head encounters.
While Li was compelling against Sharapova, drama unfolded in the second semi-final when Azarenka let slip five match points before being broken, and then took a 10-minute medical timeout off the court.
When she returned, with 19-year-old Stephens serving to stay in the match, the Belarusian world number one broke for a 6-1, 6-4 victory. "I couldn't lose. I just couldn't. That was why I was so upset. I couldn't breathe out there," she said. "It's a tremendous achievement and I'm so happy I pulled it through."
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