Maria Sharapova congratulates Victoria Azarenka, right, on her semifinal… (Clive Brunskill / Getty…)
NEW YORK -- Victoria Azarenka reached her first U.S. Open final Friday with a powerful display of tennis that left her dancing on the Arthur Ashe Stadium court.
Azarenka, ranked No. 1 in the world and top-seeded here, beat No. 3 seed Maria Sharapova, 3-6, 6-2, 6-4, in a semifinal that lasted 2 hours 42 minutes.
Azarenka will face the winner of Friday's second semifinal between fourth-seeded Serena Williams and 10th-seeded Sara Errani at 4 p.m. Pacific time Saturday.
Azarenka's only previous Grand Slam win came earlier this year at the Australian Open. Sharapova won this year's French Open and Williams took Wimbledon, the third of the four majors.
Azarenka's clever power both overwhelmed and confused Sharapova.
"I was just trying to grab opportunities," Azarenka said. "I was just trying to find my rhythm and not give her too many chances.
"I don't want to leave," Azarenka said. "I want to play the final right now."
Sharapova jumped to a 5-1 lead in the first set and had a chance to serve the set out. But the 25-year-old Sharapova, who often serves up double faults in bunches, served two in a row in the seventh game and was broken.
Azarenka had done nothing positive except stand still and watch and that was enough, for a moment, to take a fingertip of momentum. But those double faults did reinvigorate Azarenka, the 23-year-old from Belarus who will still be ranked No. 1 Monday even if she loses the final.
She came back to hold serve at 15 to make the score 5-3 and Sharapova's nervous serve remained in effect a bit longer. She served three doubles in a row to make it 15-40 and give Azarenka three break points. But Sharapova knocked her head with her racket then put in a good first serve and Azarenka ended a rally with a long backhand. From there Sharapova went on to win the first set.
Sharapova earned a service break to begin the second set as well but Azarenka broke back immediately and then held serve with a monstrous backhand. Azarenka punctuated her 2-1 lead with a yell that is distinguished from her normal high-pitched grunt for its lower tone and shorter shelf life.
Azarenka sprinted to the front of the second set by breaking Sharapova again in the fourth game, with Sharapova contributing a double fault on break point, and she took a 4-1 lead by holding serve at 15 when Sharapova sent a forehand long. It seemed that's when Sharapova's serve began deserting her, the rest of her game also followed the serve.
In the seventh game the level of the tennis improved. Azarenka saved two break points and several rallies went longer than 10 strokes with each player striking what are normally winning shots, only to have them come rocketing back across the net. When Azarenka finally held for a 5-2 lead, she shouted, "Finish."
And she did. Azarenka broke Sharapova's serve with an emphatic forehand winner that evened the match after 90 minutes with the first set having gone to Sharapova 6-3 and the second to Azarenka 6-2.
Then, because of a rule that allows a 10-minute break if the temperature is hotter than 86.2 degrees (it was 86.7) both players were allowed to leave the court. Azarenka was back first and had ball boys throwing her tennis balls so she could practice hitting.
Azarenka notched the one and only service break in the final game of the third set. She put Sharapova at a quick deficit, 0-30, by keeping her returns deep and forcing Sharapova out of place. On the final point, after too much running, Sharapova pushed a forehand long.
There was an emotionless moment at the net when Sharapova briefly congratulated Azarenka and then Azarenka broke into a dance. The Ashe crowd had strongly supported Sharapova, who won the title here in 2006.
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