Azarenka takes her time before closing deal
“It didn’t go my way, but I wouldn’t say at all that her, what happened, affected the match,” Stephens said.
That Li could beat the second-seeded Sharapova was no great surprise; she was a finalist here in 2011. But it was definitely a surprise that she could beat Sharapova as comprehensively as she did.
Sharapova had lost just nine games in five matches heading into the semi-final. Mischievous number crunchers were calculating her earnings per minute of court time: well over $1,000.
But Li will end up with the bigger pay cheque in Melbourne after feasting on Sharapova’s second serve and winning a clear majority of their physical baseline rallies.
Asked if her lack of a major test in the earlier rounds might have played a role in her minor-key performance, Sharapova demurred.
“I can’t think of it that way; I certainly can’t use that as an excuse,” she said. “When I go into any match, I’m trying to win with the best score line I can. That’s my goal.
“Today I felt like I had my fair share of opportunities. It’s not like they weren’t there. I just couldn’t take them today.”
Sharapova’s average second-serve speed was a respectable 94 mph but she won just six of 24 points with it as Li broke her serve seven times. She was also particularly effective in stretching the 6ft 2in Sharapova wide to her forehand with sliced serves and well-struck crosscourt forehands of her own.
Sharapova’s forehand, when she is on balance, is a major weapon but it is less effective on the run. “She was aggressive,” Sharapova said. “She was taking the first ball and doing something with it, and when I was trying to, I was making too many unforced errors.”
Sharapova still holds an 8-5 record over Li and won all three of their matches in 2012 when Li struggled to produce an encore to her remarkable 2011 season, when she reached the final at the Australian Open and then became the first Chinese player to win a Grand Slam singles title at the French Open.
But Li appears to be regaining momentum in 2013, six months after she and her husband, Jiang Shan, made the mutual decision to demote Jiang from coach back to husband and to hire Carlos Rodriguez.
For years, diminutive Argentine-born coach Rodriguez was Justine Henin’s mentor and tactician in chief.
He has been pushing Li particularly hard in training, and Li, who likes a joke, turned toward Rodriguez and the rest of her team during her post-match interview and gave a new directive. “You don’t need to push me anymore,” she said. “I will push me.”
New York Times