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Battling Azarenka roars past Sharapova

ESPN staff
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Victoria Azarenka powers into a forehand © Getty Images
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The world No. 1's US Open dream remains alive as Victoria Azarenka battled back from a set down to beat Maria Sharapova in their semi-final.

The pre-game talk was all about the battle of the grunts, given the decibel levels the pair reach. But it was the tennis that stole the headlines as both produced play of real quality under intense pressure in front of a packed Arthur Ashe Stadium.

Azarenka was blown off the court in the opening set but she showed the battling qualities that took her to the Australian Open title this year by weathering the storm and breaking the will of Sharapova to win 3-6 6-2 6-4.

The serve is an issue for both women, Sharapova having been plagued with double faults and Azarenka struggling to generate pace, but Sharapova made an impressive start. That was not the case for Azarenka. She came under pressure as a big forehand put her behind in the game. A wild forehand gave the Russian a break point and she did not need to do anything to convert as Azarenka sent down a double fault.

Sharapova shrugged off a wild double fault in third game to hold with confidence, cracking winners off both wings. Azarenka stopped the rot in the fourth game, with the hold coming on the back of a string of decent first serves. Sharapova broke again two games later to take a strangehold on the set. But the first cracks started to appear in her game as double faults came out of the blue to hand Azarenka a break back.

At 5-3 ahead Sharapova was under real pressure at deuce, but she scrambled deep into her backhand corner to send up a defensive lob that landed flush on the line to win the point. And one point later she crashed down an ace to take the set.

Azarenka looked in tatters when dropping her serve at the start of the second, but she then started hitting with freedom. An immediate break back came her way, followed by a love hold. For the first time in the match Sharapova looked on edge and it showed as a massive second serve on break-point down crashed into the net and handed a second break to Azarenka.

Azarenka held firm as Sharapova threw bombs at her and closed out the set with another break. Her momentum was halted by a 10-minute delay as Sharapova went to the locker room. Strangely, Azarenka was given permission to keep loose by hitting with the ball boys and it certainly did not hinder her as she came out with a couple of strong service holds.

Sharapova looked shaky at the start of the final set and three truly awful forehands handed Azarenka break points in the fourth game, but the Russian found the answers to hold in a game that lasted eight minutes.

Heading into the final set something had to give. Neither player had lost a three-set match in 2012 and it was Azarenka's record that remains intact. On four occasions Sharapova came through epic service holds, but at the fifth time of asking Azarenka broke through - taking the match point at the second time of asking when her opponent threw a forehand over the baseline.

It is Azarenka's first US Open final and it is the first time the No. 1 seed has reached the US Open final since 2007, when Justine Henin won the title.

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