BEIJING, China - It's one of the biggest WTA events of the year, so who better to play for the title than the Top 2 players in the world? Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova got better and better in the semifinals of the China Open on Saturday, setting up a blockbuster final at the $4,828,050 tournament.
The No.2-seeded Sharapova was the first of the pair to move through, falling behind 3-1 in the early goings to Li Na but then reeling off 11 of the next 12 games to defeat the No.7-seeded Chinese in a runaway straight-setter, 64 60.
"It was a really high quality first set with a few ups and downs, and obviously she had the lead in that set, but I came back," Sharapova said. "There were a few key moments to that set, and after I broke her in the last game, it was important to take that momentum into the second set and keep going.
"Li Na has so much experience. She's a Grand Slam champion. You know it's going to be difficult, and she can play high level tennis and come back. So it's important to keep a high level as long as you can when you play against her."
Sharapova came into Beijing from a rough week in Tokyo, where she had a few difficult matches before falling in the quarterfinals; there was a bit of a hangover this week, as she edged Simona Halep in the first round, 75 75, but she has only lost 10 games in four matches since then and is now in the final.
"I came into this tournament not playing extremely well in Tokyo, and I had a couple of days of practice here," Sharapova said. "I really wanted to do well and get to the final stage of this tournament, because I hadn't been to the finals here. I'd played a few times, and skipped last year because I was injured.
"So I was hoping from the first round I'd really step it up and get better - and I feel as the tournament has gone on I've been playing and moving better."
Despite the loss, Li was happy with her week. "I was happy to be in the semis of the China Open because last year I didn't do well, and also it's the only big tournament in China, so I really wanted to show the Chinese how good I can play. Today I tried my best on the court, but Maria was just better than me.
"Now I'm looking forward to the WTA Championships and also to next year."
And what about next year? "I'm excited for next season," Li commented. "Since I started working with Carlos the whole team is working very well together. Our goal was for me to participate in the WTA Championships, and at the last minute we made our wish possible. At the end of the season we'll make a plan for next season and find out what our objectives will be moving forward."
The No.1-seeded Azarenka came into Beijing with some doubts as well, after withdrawing before her quarterfinal match last week in Tokyo due to dizziness - but she steamrolled everyone in straight sets this week and straight-setted No.9 seed Marion Bartoli in the semis too, sneaking out a break in the last game of the first set then never letting her lead go en route to a 64 62 victory.
For months Angelique Kerber has been the WTA's match win leader for the year, but Azarenka passed her on Saturday with her 61st (Kerber has 60).
Azarenka and Sharapova may be the Top 2 players in the world, but they are both in somewhat of a drought for WTA titles recently - Sharapova hasn't won a title since winning the French Open in early June, while you have to go all the way back to Indian Wells in March for Azarenka's most recent triumph.
For one the drought will end on Sunday however, as they square off for this title, and given their history, Azarenka has a lot to be excited about - Azarenka leads Sharapova in their head-to-head series, 6-4, but more importantly she has won their last five hardcourt meetings (four of them in straight sets).
"We had an excellent match at the US Open. It was that stage of a tournament where both of us really wanted to win," Azarenka said. "Tomorrow is going to be another case like that, fighting for the title here. Anything can happen in a final. Maria's an excellent player and a huge fighter as well - we all know that.
"To have somebody like Maria in the final is a privilege."