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Originally published Wednesday, January 23, 2013 at 9:50 PM

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China's Li defeats Sharapova, into final

Li Na used the heat to her advantage and worked second-ranked Maria Sharapova around Rod Laver Arena in a 6-2, 6-2 win Thursday that put...

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MELBOURNE, Australia — Li Na used the heat to her advantage and worked second-ranked Maria Sharapova around Rod Laver Arena in a 6-2, 6-2 win Thursday that put her in the Australian Open final for the second time in three years.

Sharapova was the heavy favorite after conceding only nine games in her first five matches, a record at the Australian Open.

But the semifinal started badly for the 25-year-old Russian, serving double-faults to lose the first two points and conceding a break in the first game.

Li will now play top-ranked Victoria Azarenka of Belarus, the defending champion who beat 19-year-old American Sloane Stephens 6-1, 6-4.

Li was the first Chinese player to reach a Grand Slam final when she lost to Kim Clijsters at Melbourne Park in 2011. She had her breakthrough a few months later when she won the French Open, beating Sharapova in the semifinals along the way.

The crowd got behind Li early in the match, yelling "Come on, Li Na!" and others yelling "Jia You!" which is "Come on" in Chinese. After she broke Sharapova to take a 5-2 lead, the Chinese fans in the crowd shook Chinese flags and shouted again, "Jia You!"

"I don't know what happened (but) I always play well here, so thanks guys," said Li, who was playing her third Australian Open semifinal in four years.

Sharapova could have gained the No. 1 ranking by reaching the final.

"She was certainly much more aggressive than I was, dictating the play," Sharapova said of Li. "I was always on the defense. When I had my opportunities and break points in games that went to deuce, I don't think any of them really went my way."

Azarenka overcame a sore left ankle, some anxiety and a slew of frustrating forehand errors before fending off Stephens.

Azarenka said she "almost did the choke of the year" when she wasted five match points on serve at 5-3 in the second, mostly with unforced errors on her forehand. She went to the locker room for medical treatment after dropping that game, then returned to break the 29th-seeded Stephens' serve to finish off the match.

The 23-year-old Azarenka later said the treatment was for chest pain.

"I couldn't breathe. I had chest pains," she said. "It was like I was getting a heart attack."

The makeup of the men's semifinals was as expected. Andy Murray of Britain faces Roger Federer of Switzerland, and defending champion Novak Djokovic of Serbia meets fourth-seeded David Ferrer of Spain.

Federer needed five sets and five match points to subdue Jo-Wilfried Tsonga of France 7-6 (7-4), 4-6, 7-6 (7-4), 3-6, 6-3 in a late quarterfinal.

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