Azarenka battles back as Sharapova wilts in the heat

 

Flushing Meadows

One of their remarkable endurance records had to be broken and in the end it was Maria Sharapova who gave way in the energy-sapping heat and humidity here yesterday to send Victoria Azarenka into her first US Open final.

Neither of the world's top two players had lost a three-set match this year and it was Azarenka who maintained her run, beating Sharapova 3-6, 6-2, 6-4 after two hours and 42 minutes. Tonight she will attempt to win her second Grand Slam title of the year when she faces Serena Williams, who needed only 64 minutes to beat Sara Errani 6-1, 6-2.

Azarenka was a break down in the second set, having lost the first, but the world No 1 drew strength from adversity. Sharapova, in contrast, appeared to become increasingly anxious as the match progressed. Eighteen of the Russian's 42 unforced errors – Azarenka made only 19 in the match – came in the final set. Sharapova, who will climb one place to No 2 in the world rankings on Monday, started well enough, but in the second and third sets she failed to put enough pressure on Azarenka's serve.

Since her stunning start to the year, when she won her first 26 matches and first four tournaments, Azarenka has struggled to maintain her momentum, failing to win another title, but the 23-year-old Belarusian coasted through her early matches here and showed great resilience to find a way past both Sharapova and Sam Stosur.

The world's top two women are also two of the game's loudest. Even in Arthur Ashe Stadium, where there is always a background hubbub, the shrieking that puts off so many spectators was striking. Sharapova's shriek may be louder than Azarenka's, but is not as prolonged. There are times when Azarenka is still doing her banshee impression by the time her opponent is striking the next shot.

Playing in her first semi-final here, Azarenka made a nervous start, serving a double fault on break point in the second game. Sharapova's early confidence was exemplified when she went 4-1 up with a beautifully judged backhand lob as Azarenka attacked the net.

The only time when the Russian faltered in the first set was when she served at 5-3. However, after going 15-40 down following two double faults she kept her composure. Despite netting a forehand on her first set point, she set up a second with a superb defensive lob. An ace on the next point gave her the first set after 40 minutes.

Azarenka double-faulted at 40-30 in the opening game of the second set and went on to drop serve. From that moment onwards, however, the Belarusian found a much better rhythm on her ground strokes. The beautifully constructed rally that set up break point for a 3-1 lead typified her growing self-belief.

Sharapova, who lost four games in a row, went 40-0 up when serving to stay in the set at 2-5 but threw the game away with a succession of errors. A dreadful drive volley into the net at deuce gave Azarenka the first set point, which Sharapova saved, and on the second the Australian Open champion created an easy put-away with a big forehand into a corner.

With the temperature approaching 31C Sharapova took advantage of the heat rule to take a 10-minute break before the start of the third set. Azarenka, clearly anxious to maintain her momentum, stayed out on court and asked the ball boys to throw balls at her to enable her to keep hitting.

The decider went with serve until Sharapova served to stay in the match at 4-5. The Russian saved one match point with some consistent hitting, but on the second she hit a forehand long.

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