Australian Open: Azarenka d. Clijsters

by: | January 25, 2012

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201201252319839493819-p2@stats.comScreaming jets soared overhead, signaling the start of Australia Day celebration. A shrieking Victoria Azarenka closed the show instituting a no-fly zone below.

Maintaining her nerve and the lead in the decisive set, the third-seeded Belarusian grounded defending champion Kim Clijsters, 6-4, 1-6, 6-3, to reach her first Grand Slam final. Azarenka will play for the Australian Open title and the world No. 1 ranking against either Wimbledon winner Petra Kvitova or former No. 1 Maria Sharapova.

Four-time Grand Slam champion Clijsters was playing her 16th major semifinal, including her seventh at Melbourne Park, where "Aussie Kim" was the sentimental fan favorite in her Australian Open farewell. Azarenka, on the other hand, was contesting just her second Grand Slam semifinal. But with a trip to the final riding on the third set, it was the 22-year-old Azarenka who lifted her level, while Clijsters blinked in committing 21 of her 44 unforced errors in the last act of a two hour, 12-minute drama.

Clijsters' quick court coverage is one of her strengths, and Azarenka minimized that edge to an extent as she came out challenging the second serve, turning her hips and shoulders into an inside-out forehand return winner to break for 2-1. Showing stubborn self-reliance and some subtle shots, Azarenka then fought off four break points, holding with a gorgeous backhand drop shot winner for 3-1. Serving down 5-3, Clijsters staved off two set points. Lunging to her right, she stabbed a reflex forehand back, stayed in the corner anticipating Azarenka’s forehand swing volley, and fired a forehand pass down the line. Clijsters screamed “come on!”, engaging emotionally for the first time, but Azarenka soon closed the set with a stinging slice serve.

In the second set, Clijsters took a commanding 5-0 lead by cutting down on errors, moving a step closer to the baseline and playing her trademark defiant defense, skidding into several sliding retrievals. She got plenty of help from Azarenka in her second-set surge. Losing the shape of her service motion, Azarenka found the net repeatedly, serving just 36 percent and committing 16 errors compared to Clijsters' five. Azarenka missed the mark on successive backhands as Clijsters earned her second break for 4-0, and consolidated at love for 5-0.

The match now level, Azarenka hammered a forehand to break at love for 2-0 in the final set, only to dump her sixth double fault and give the break back in the next game. Clijsters clanked a double fault deep to drop serve again, and Azarenka, pumping her fists after each winner, stretched the lead to 4-1. But things were far fromover. Clijsters made a stand similar to her fourth-round match with Li Na, roaring back from 0-40 to break for 3-4. That game brought the crowd to its feet, but it would not bring Azarenka to her knees. Sending Clijsters so far behind the baseline she was skidding into the shadows cast by the back wall, Azarenka knocked off a forehand volley to break for 5-3.

With her first major final in sight, Clijsters helped out her opponent with two poor returns and an error on match point. Vika will try to continue her ascension by taking the title and the top spot in the final.

Richard Pagliaro

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