Melbourne: Record-breaking Maria Sharapova will hope to capitalise on Serena Williams’ demise to snatch her fifth Grand Slam title — but first she’ll have to get past a determined Li Na in the semis.
The tall Russian was quickly installed as bookmakers’ favourite after a limping Williams was upset by teenager Sloane Stephens, who will face 2012 champion Victoria Azarenka in the last four on Thursday.
Sharapova has been in terrifying form at the year’s opening Grand Slam, running through five matches for the loss of just nine games, a new tournament record. But Li is relaxed, fitter and perhaps steelier under new coach Carlos Rodriguez, and she can also draw on her 2011 performances, when she defeated the Russian at the French Open the way to becoming Asia’s first Grand Slam champion.
“She’s a more aggressive player on the court. Also she’s tough. She’s fighting a lot,” said Li, when asked how Sharapova’s game had improved.
“Should be a tough match. So we’ll see Thursday.”
Li has shown she is comfortable at Melbourne Park, after reaching the 2011 final where she was beaten by Kim Clijsters, as well as making two other semi-finals.
And the Chinese world number six showed she is back on top of her game in the quarter-finals, when she halted the 13-match winning streak of Poland’s Agnieszka Radwanska.
Li has already picked up one title this year, in Shenzhen, and the 30-year-old seems to have banished the dreadful run of Grand Slam form which followed her 2011 win in Paris.
“She certainly stepped up her game. I think at different times in a player’s career you need that extra motivation, you might need a change,” said Sharapova.
“She’s been there, she’s done that - she’s a Grand Slam champion. It wasn’t like she needed someone to come in and fix her game. I don’t think that was really the plan.
“But sometimes when you just have a different surrounding and a new voice, they might be saying the same things but it just gets to you a little bit differently and your motivation changes.”