"Everything is shaking, I just want to cry," Victoria Azarenka told the crowd on Rod Laver Arena after she had dethroned defending champion Kim Clijsters 6-4, 1-6, 6-3 Thursday to reach her first Grand Slam final here at the Australian Open.
But, later, having collected herself, the 22-year-old from Belarus said she would remain "humble and focused" as she prepares for the biggest match of her life on Saturday. Azarenka will face Maria Sharapova, who reached the sixth Grand Slam final of her career with a pulsating 6-2, 3-6, 6-4 victory over the Czech who beat her in last year's Wimbledon final, Petra Kvitova.
And there could be icing on the cake for Victoria if she were to win because that would make her the new No. 1 in the world, following Caroline Wozniacki's loss in the quarterfinals. The same, incidentally, would be true for Sharapova, but she has been there before.
At one stage, it seemed that Azarenka would get blown off court by Clijsters, who roared back into the match after losing the first set. "She was dominating then," Azarenka admitted. "She had me running and running like it was a marathon. But at the beginning of the third I started to be more aggressive and told myself 'you have 30, 45 minutes to make a difference."
And she did.
It took a big mental effort on her part, too, because she was not the crowd favorite out there. Few players are when they play Kim in Australia because sporting fans here have adopted her as an honorary Aussie ever since she went out with Lleyton Hewitt many years ago. And, in any case, Azarenka, unhappily, is going to have to work hard to win over fans for as long as she continues to make such a high-pitched squeal every time she hits the ball.
But Clijsters, who had a break point in the first game of the third set and did break back from 2-4 later on, was full of praise for her opponent. "She returned really well today," said Clijsters, who was obviously disappointed at losing her crown on what will be her final appearance at Melbourne Park. "She liked to play down the middle and obviously one of her strengths is to return as fast as she can back to the server. It's tough to get out of that. She was playing really aggressive and moving really well."
In the second semifinal, Kvitova struck back brilliantly in the second set after Sharapova had dominated the first. After serves had been swapped,it was dead even at 3-3 in the third when Sharapova threw in one of those pesky double faults that still plague her game and went 15-40 down. Maria showed nerves of steel as she produced a big second serve to get back to deuce only to double fault again. Kvitova had already netted with a tentative looking forehand and, trying to free up her arm, the tall left-hander then hit a forehand long. Kvitova scored with a pinpoint forehand cross-court winner as this crucial battle continued but Sharapova eventually escaped with her serve intact.
The next major drama erupted when Kvitova got herself to 0-30 on the Russian serve at 4-4 and thought she had 0-40 when her opponent's shot was called out. But Sharapova challenged and she was correct. The ball had nicked the line. Kvitova was straining now; trying a little too hard; caught in the need to penetrate Maria's defenses while cutting out the errors. In the end, it was beyond her.
Kvitova's assessment was succinct. "Probably I play more aggressive in Wimbledon and didn't have a lot of mistakes like I did today," she said.
Sharapova admitted it had been an emotional victory for her. "Yeah, it means a lot to me," she said. "I played someone who's just had great results and had beaten me the last couple of times. I just really wanted it today. I fought to the last point. She had so many opportunities in that third set but I hung on and just really went for it."