MELBOURNE - Former champion Maria Sharapova and Belarus's Victoria Azarenka will fight for the Australian Open title and the number one ranking after winning nerve-wracking semi-finals Thursday.
"Everything is shaking but that feeling when you finally win is such a relief. I can't believe it's over -- I just want to cry." Both semi-finals were closely fought and impossible to predict, and each went to three tense sets with Sharapova winning 6-2, 3-6, 6-4 and Azarenka beating Clijsters 6-4, 1-6, 6-3.
The Australian Open has heralded a shake-up in women's tennis with Denmark's Caroline Wozniacki set to drop from world number one to four, and with Clijsters now following long-dominant Serena Williams out of the tournament.
Azarenka can now claim Belarus's first ever grand slam title in Saturday's final, while resurgent Sharapova gets another shot at breaking a four-year major drought since her previous Melbourne win in 2008. Third seed Azarenka, 22, wept on court after she upset four-time slam champion Clijsters to go one step better than her previous grand slam best of reaching the semi-finals at last year's Wimbledon.
She has often faltered on the big stage, most noticeably at the 2010 Australian Open when she led eventual champion Williams before imploding.
But she stood firm Thursday to hold off Clijsters' strong revival. "Before, I think you all thought I was a mental case but I was just young and emotional," she said. "But I'm really glad the way I fought. That's the thing I'm most proud of, I fought for every ball."
In the second semi-final, a rematch of last year’s Wimbledon decider, Kvitova and Sharapova threw everything at each other for almost two-and-a-quarter hours on Rod Laver Arena. Sharapova dominated the first set and Kvitova the second, with the pair evenly matched in the third until Kvitova faltered at 4-5 to lose her serve and send Sharapova through to the final.
"I felt like in the third she always had the advantage because I was always down on my serve," said Sharapova, adding: "And I just thought you have got to go for it." Both players have faced criticism over their loud on-court shrieking this week, with the Women's Tennis Association (WTA) announcing plans aimed at curbing the trend.