Victoria Azarenka passes test of resolve to see off Kim Clijsters

VICTORIA Azarenka was delighted to prove she was not just a “mental case” by displaying a new-found resolve in reaching the Australian Open final.

The Belarusian has long been regarded as one of the most talented players on tour but her fragility at key moments would often come to the surface, leading to meltdowns and, frequently, tears.

But her stunning three-set defeat of Kim Clijsters which moved her into a first grand slam final suggested a mental fortitude she is likely to require once again in tomorrow’s title decider against Maria Sharapova.

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“I don’t know if it’s the toughest [match of my career], but it’s one of the most emotional,” she said. “I think every single person has experienced nerves but it’s how you deal with it. You just have to control it.”

Asked if she had improved in that regard, she joked: “Yeah, I think before you all thought I was a mental case but I am just young and emotional.”

Defending champion Clijsters, on what could have been her last appearance Down Under as she is due to retire at the end of the season, fought hard but Azarenka’s bludgeoning ground strokes powered her to a 6-4, 1-6, 6-3 triumph. Azarenka was outstanding in the early exchanges, her greater weight of shot pushing Clijsters further behind the baseline and she was quick to punish the short ball. She broke for a 2-1 lead and overcame some uncertain moments on serve and a noisy flypast to celebrate Australia Day to see out the set.

The second was a complete contrast as Azarenka started to throw in numerous unforced errors and the experienced Clijsters seized her chance, winning it in 36 minutes to level matters.

Previously, that would have signalled the beginning of the end for Azarenka but she remained calm to claim a 4-1 lead despite Clijsters’ best efforts.

The four-times grand slam champion was staring down the barrel at 4-2, 40-0 down but, in a courageous last stand, hit back to break and get it back on serve. But, again, Azarenka stood firm, a crushing forehand seeing her break back and she served it out. Tomorrow’s final will not only be for the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup but also the world No 1 ranking.

Petra Kvitova was another in contention for top spot but her defeat to Sharapova yesterday means she will have to wait a little longer.

For Sharapova, the 6-2, 3-6, 6-4 victory was particularly sweet after her defeat to the Czech in the Wimbledon final last July.

The players traded breaks at the start of the deciding set and, having come through a titanic seventh game, Sharapova made her move to snatch the Kvitova serve and clinch the match.

“I felt in the third set she had the advantage because I was always down on my serve,” said Sharapova. “I thought I had to hit it and don’t let her finish the points the way she likes to. I just hung in there and got a few returns in in that final game, perhaps that was the key.”