Australian Open

Champ returns to final

Azarenka takes controversial path to title match

The Associated PressJanuary 25, 2013 

APTOPIX Australian Open Tennis

Victoria Azarenka of Belarus receives treatment from a trainer during her semifinal match against Sloane Stephens of the US at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia, Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013. (AP Photo/Andrew Brownbill)

ANDREW BROWNBILL — AP

  • Scores MEN’S SEMIFINAL Novak Djokovic (1), Serbia, def. David Ferrer (4), Spain, 6-2, 6-2, 6-1. WOMEN’S SEMIFINAL Li Na (6), China, def. Maria Sharapova (2), Russia, 6-2, 6-2. Victoria Azarenka (1), Belarus, def. Sloane Stephens (29), United States, 6-1, 6-4.

— Victoria Azarenka will have 48 hours to calm her nerves, rest her body and move past a center-court controversy before she returns to defend her Australian Open title.

Her opponent is an emotionally and physically fresher Li Na, the 2011 French Open champion.

Both women used the word “hungry” to describe how much they want to win their second Grand Slam title. Both say their goal is to keep cool and not let their emotions get the best of them on the big day.

In that respect, the sixth-seeded Li enters the final with an advantage.

In a men’s semifinal, Novak Djokovic dispensed with No. 4-seeded David Ferrer 6-2, 6-2, 6-1 in the night match, saying he “played perfectly” to reach his third consecutive Australian Open title match. Then he dispensed some medical advice of his own.

The Serb, who won the Australian titles in 2008, 2011 and 2012, wore a white shirt with a red cross on the back, pretending to be a doctor to treat Henri Leconte during a legends doubles match at Rod Laver Arena.

He’s relaxed now that he has an extra day to prepare for Sunday’s final. Djokovic will next play the winner of today’s semifinal between No. 2 Roger Federer, a four-time Australian Open champion, and No. 3 Andy Murray, the U.S. Open champion.

The 30-year-old Li is in top physical form and making a Grand Slam comeback. After becoming the first Chinese tennis player to win a major in 2011, she hit a slump. But she hired Justine Henin’s former coach six months ago and the partnership has produced rapid results.

The confident and big-hitting Azarenka also advanced in straight sets, beating American teenager Sloane Stephens 6-1, 6-4. But the victory was packed with drama and ended with the top-ranked player defending herself against accusations of gamesmanship by leaving the court for a medical timeout.

Serving for the match at 5-3, the 23-year-old Azarenka wasted five match points, lost her serve — then called a timeout. She sat with a trainer and left the court during a nine-minute medical break. She returned to close out the match by breaking Stephens’ serve.

But she raised suspicion during her interview on center court.

“Well, I almost did the choke of the year,” a relieved Azarenka said to the crowd. “I just felt a little bit overwhelmed. I realized I’m one step away from the final and nerves got into me for sure.

“I love to play here and I just couldn’t lose, that’s why I was so upset.”

Azarenka has a history of on-court tantrums.

Australian crowds love defending champions but dislike bad sportsmanship.

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