Li beats Sharapova, advances to Australian final

JOHN PYE AP Sports Writer Published:

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) -- Li Na used the heat to her advantage and worked No. 2-ranked Maria Sharapova around Rod Laver Arena in a 6-2, 6-2 win on Thursday that put her in the Australian Open final for the second time in three years.

Sharapova was the heavy favorite after conceding only nine games in her first five matches, a record at the Australian Open.

But the semifinal started badly for the 25-year-old Russian, serving double-faults to lose the first two points and conceding a break in the first game.

Li will now play the winner of Thursday's later semifinal between top-ranked Victoria Azarenka, the defending champion, and 19-year-old American Sloane Stephens.

Li was the first Chinese player to reach a Grand Slam final when she lost to Kim Clijsters at Melbourne Park in 2011. She had her breakthrough a few months later when she won the French Open, beating Sharapova in the semifinals along the way.

The crowd got behind Li early in the match, yelling "Come on, Li Na!" and others yelling "Jia You!" which is "Come on" in Chinese. After she broke Sharapova to take a 5-2 lead, the Chinese fans in the crowd shook Chinese flags and shouted again, "Jia You!"

"I don't know what happened (but) I always play well here, so thanks guys," said Li, who was playing her third Australian Open semifinal in four years.

The temperature topped 93 degrees during the first of the semifinals, and the speed of the court surface suited Li's game.

Li broke Sharapova in the third game of the second set and served an ace to move within a point of a 4-2 lead, but lost the next three points to give her opponent a break opportunity.

Two big second serves took Sharapova by surprise, and Li fended off the challenge.

Her coach Carlos Rodriguez -- who worked with seven-time major winner Justine Henin, now retired -- pumped his fist over his heart after Li won the game.

Sharapova had control in her next service game, but Li scrambled from side to side and pushed the reigning French Open champion to go for the lines, getting a series of unforced errors and another break.

The sixth-seeded Li has been working since August with Rodriguez, and credits him with reviving her career with a renewed emphasis on condition.

"I'm happy. I know I have a tough coach, a tough physio," Li said, looking across to the stands and adding: "You don't need to push me anymore. I will push myself."

Sharapova, who lost the 2012 Australian final in straight sets to Azarenka, admitted it was hard to get into the match against Li.

"She was certainly much more aggressive than I was, dictating the play. I was always on the defense," said Sharapova, who could have gained the No. 1 ranking by reaching the Australian final. "When I had my opportunities and break points in games that went to deuce, I don't think any of them really went my way."

The 29th-seeded Stephens produced the upset of the tournament to advance to a Grand Slam semifinal for the first time, beating Serena Williams on Wednesday.

Stephens won 3-6, 7-5, 6-4, starting to swing hard when she was down a set and a break and keeping her composure when Williams, one of her childhood heroes, jarred her back and needed a medical timeout.

While there were surprises in the composition of the women's last four, the makeup of the men's semifinals was as expected.

Top-ranked Novak Djokovic will continue his bid for a third consecutive Australian title when he takes on No. 4 David Ferrer on Thursday. No. 2 Roger Federer and No. 3 Andy Murray will meet Friday.