Azarenka, Li Na in clash for the crown
Djokovic brushes Ferrer aside to enter title round
Novak Djokovic installed himself as red-hot favourite for a third straight Australian Open title with a semifinal demolition of David Ferrer on Thursday after Victoria Azarenka had controversially set up a final against Li Na.
Serbian world number one Djokovic was brutally dominant as he pulverised the Spanish fourth seed 6-2, 6-2, 6-1 in 89 minutes in Rod Laver Arena to race into Sunday's final against Roger Federer or Andy Murray.
"This was definitely one of the best matches of my career," he said. "Tonight (Thursday) I just played incredible,’’ he added.
China's Li could only be less convincing despite the impressive 6-2, 6-2 win over Russia's 2008 champion Maria Sharapova but it was the second women's semifinal that provided the main talking point of the day.
There was no doubt that defending champion Azarenka was a worthy 6-1, 6-4 winner over American teenager Sloane Stephens but the spectre of gamesmanship was raised when the Belarusian took a lengthy medical timeout after failing to convert five match points.
"I almost did the choke of the year right now," the world number one said at courtside. "At 5-3, having so many chances, couldn't close it out but I'm glad I could close it out. Nerves got into me for sure,’’ she revealed.
Stephens, playing in her first Grand Slam semifinal after upsetting Serena Williams on Wednesday, was not about to make an issue of it and Azarenka clarified her comments in the face of a barrage of questions at her post-match news conference.
Djokovic looked like he barely wanted to take a break even at changeovers as he delivered a one-sided masterpiece of a performance against the fifth best player in men's tennis.
The 25-year-old Serbian won 91 percent of his first serve points, converted all seven of his break points and hit 30 winners as he thrashed Ferrer.
"I have a great feeling about myself on the court at this moment," Djokovic said. "Now I have two days off before the finals which gives me enough time to get ready and recover for the finals,’’ he added.
Perhaps deciding that he had not spent enough time on the main showcourt, Djokovic later reappeared during a seniors doubles match dressed as a doctor to give Henri Leconte mock medical treatment.
While Djokovic's performance had the tennis purists purring, Li's victory would have had the tournament's marketing department grinning from ear to ear.
The self-titled "Grand Slam of the Asia-Pacific" has never had an Asian singles champion and Li, whose first trip to the Melbourne Park final ended in defeat to Kim Clijsters in 2011, has a second chance to put that right. "At the beginning of the match I was nervous," said the 30-year-old Chinese. "I was happy to be back in the semis again.
I'm really hungry for the title," the former French Open champion added. "I think this time should be maybe a different story,’’ Li said. Second seed Sharapova had carved her way ruthlessly through the draw at Melbourne Park, conceding only nine games on her way to the semifinals.
Li has also been in impressive form this year and will be quietly confident that she has the measure of Azarenka.
Certainly, on Thursday, the Chinese showed none of the mental frailties that have dogged her in the past as she broke the Russian in her first service game and never looked back.
“When your opponent is always up and ahead, it's always a little bit mentally easier for them to keep that going," said Sharapova.
"If I would have taken those chances and clawed my way back and made it a bit tougher for her, I'm sure she would have thought a little bit more. But I certainly didn't make her think about anything," the Russian added.
Bhupathi, Sania exit
The Indian campaign came to an end at after Sania Mirza and Mahesh Bhupathi crashed out of the mixed doubles, losing their respective quarterfinal matches in contrasting fashion on Thursday.
Third seeds Sania and her American partner Bob Bryan were stunned 5-7, 4-6 by the unseeded Czech duo of Lucie Hradecka and Frantisek Cermak.
Fifth seeds Bhupathi and his Russian partner Nadia Petrova lost 3-5, 6-3, 11-13 to the Australian combine of Jarmila Gajdosova and Matthew Ebden.
Results (semifinals, prefix denotes seeding): Men’s singles: 1-Novak Djokovic (Srb) beat 4-David Ferrer (Esp) 6-2, 6-2, 6-1. Women’s singles: 1-Victoria Azarenka (Blr) bt 29-Sloane Stephens (US) 6-1, 6-4; 6-Li Na (Chn) bt 2-Maria Sharapova (Rus) 6-2, 6-2. Mixed doubles (Quarterfinals): Jarmila Gajdosova/ Matthew Ebden (Aus) bt 5-Nadia Petrova/ Mahesh Bhupathi (Rus/ Ind) 6-3, 3-6, 13-11; Lucie Hradecka/ Frantisek Cermak (Cze) bt 3-Sania Mirza (Ind)/ Bob Bryan (US) 7-5, 6-4. Men’s doubles (Semifinals): Robin Haase/ Igor Sijsling (Ned) bt 3-Marcel Granollers/ Marc Lopez (Esp) 7-5, 6-4; 1-Bob Bryan/ Mike Bryan (US) bt Simone Bolelli/ Fabio Fognini (Ita) 6-4, 4-6, 6-1.