You learn never to write off Serena Williams, but the American produced a comeback here today remarkable even by her own standards. Victoria Azarenka was leading their Australian Open quarter-final by a set and 4-0 before Williams finally got her game together to win 4-6, 7-6, 6-2. The world No 1 had been on course for a semi-final showdown with her sister, Venus, but instead she will play Li Na, who joins her fellow Chinese, Zheng Jie, in the last four. Li beat Venus 2-6, 7-6, 7-5.
Serena, who is aiming to win the title here for a fifth time, had not dropped a set or been broken in 31 service games in her four previous matches before today. Azarenka, however, broke serve in the very first game and went on to make five breaks before Williams finally pulled herself together.
Azarenka, 20, is one of the emerging talents in the women’s game. The world No 7 had Williams in trouble in the fourth round here a year ago but had to retire through illness and heat exhaustion midway through the second set. The Belorussian won 24 of her first 26 matches in a superb run at the start of last year, which led to her breaking into the world’s top 10 for the first time.
For a set and a half Williams appeared to have no answer to Azarenka’s bold ground strokes, but rediscovered her poise when two games away from defeat. The American won a hard-fought game at 0-4 and then won five games in a row before Azarenka halted the slide. The set went into a tie-break, which Williams won 7-4.
The world No 1, who again played with plenty of strapping on her left knee and right thigh, broke Azarenka to love in the third game of the decider and promptly ran away with the set.
"She was playing so well,” Williams said afterwards. “I was down 0-4 and I thought I had nothing to lose and I just started finally making my shots. I didn't serve well in the first set and a half and when my serve is off it makes my whole game off."
Williams added: "I'm surprised. I didn't expect to win when I was down in the second set. I thought if I lost the singles and the doubles, I could catch a flight on Friday. It's not what a champion is supposed to think, but I did."
Roles were reversed for sister Venus, who won the first set with something to spare and served for the match against Li at 5-4 in the second set, only to let victory slip from her grasp. The match was littered with breaks of serve, but Williams appeared to have done enough until four unforced errors enabled Li to level at 5-5 in the second set. It went into a tie-break, which the No 16 seed won 7-4 to take the match into a decider.
The contest took another turn when Venus went into a 2-0 lead in the third set, but Li broke back during a sequence of six successive breaks of serve. Li failed to serve out at 5-4, but at 5-5 Williams was broken once again. This time there was no way back as Li secured victory with a big forehand winner on her third match point. Li described it as “the best day of my whole life”.
Williams, who has not progressed past the last eight here since 2003, said she found her defeat hard to explain. "I think I just started rushing my shots a little too much instead of just taking my time and really just hitting a clean ball," she said. "Sometimes I was able to back off. But, you know, sometimes it's so easy to get so eager.
"In tennis you have to close it out. It's not like there's a clock ticking and then suddenly it's over. You just have to close it out. I didn't do that today."
Looking ahead to tomorrow’s semi-final against Li, Serena said: "I have played her a few times and she has beaten me once. I know her game well and the way I feel, I have nothing to lose."