Stephens stuns Serena, Azarenka advances
American teenager Sloane Stephens caused the biggest upset at this year's Australian Open when the 29th seed rallied to overcome an injury-hampered Serena Williams in the quarterfinals on Wednesday.
Stephens prevailed 3-6 7-5 6-4 to set up a semifinal against world No 1 Victoria Azarenka, who won a first-set war of attrition before crushing Svetlana Kuznetsova 7-5 6-1.
19-year-old Stephens maintained her focus to see out the victory after the five-time champion had jarred her back in the second set and left the court for medical treatment.
"Oh my goodness," an emotional Stephens said in a courtside interview as she secured a maiden grand slam semifinal berth. "I'm sure my grandparents are freaking out. I'm sure they're watching on the computer."
The match was billed as a showdown pitting the future of American tennis against the most accomplished player of the present generation, and the early signs indicated that Williams possessed too much power for her younger opponent.
Both players hammered away at each other on serve in the opener with the receiver winning a total of two points until the eighth game, when Williams broke Stephens to take a 5-3 lead then held to seal the set in 28 minutes.
The nature of the contest changed dramatically when Williams, already concerned by an ankle injury sustained in the first round, appeared to twinge her back when chasing a drop shot in the eighth game of the second set.
Visibly in pain, the 31-year-old's vigour disappeared and she took a medical timeout to have the injury assessed.
She looked in such distress that it appeared she would retire from the match, and though she did return, there was no zip to her serve.
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Averaging more than 170kph throughout the tournament and with several serves in excess of 200kph, the American was barely able to roll her shoulder over, with the sole aim of getting the ball into the service box to begin rallies.
By contrast, Stephens appeared to suffer a mental block, getting broken when she was serving for the set while Williams, who was now serving less than 130kph, held to love as the slower paced deliveries affected the teenager's timing.
Stephens, however, managed to regain her composure and win the next two games to take the set 7-5 and level the match.
Frustrated and in pain, Williams let her anger boil over at the end of the third game of the decider after Stephens had taken a 2-1 lead.
Williams twice smashed her racquet into the court and hurled the broken equipment under her chair and the momentary outburst of destruction appeared to work in her favour as she cranked up the speed of her serve again.
Looking more comfortable in her movement, Williams broke to make it 4-3 in the decider but was unable to prevent her gutsy opponent from breaking back immediately.
Stephens then held and broke again to seal the shock victory and set up a semifinal against defending champion Azarenka.
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PUSHED TO THE WALL
The world No 1 was pushed to the wall by the 27-year-old Russian, who played more like a two-time grand slam winner than her current world No 75 ranking.
Kuznetsova and Francesca Schiavone played in the longest women's grand slam singles match in 2011 at Melbourne Park, lasting four hours and 44 minutes, and the Russian appeared determined to drag Azarenka into another draining epic.
Former US and French Open champion Kuznetsova raced to a 4-1 lead, with her sliced serve to her opponent's forehand proving a handful for the Belarusian.
But Azarenka moved up a gear to level at 4-4, and captured the decisive break at 5-5 before sealing the first set when Kuznetsova missed a backhand.
Kuznetsova spent half of 2012 recovering from a knee injury and suffered a fright when the same knee jolted during a serve in the first game of the second set.
"I was really scared because I almost broke it again the same way I did it (last year)," she said. "My knee went backward, the same way, exactly ... I was a little bit freaking out because I didn't want to have another time off."
The 77-minute first set lasted 20 minutes longer than Azarenka's entire match against Russian Elena Vesnina in the previous round, but she roared through the second in half an hour.
"I think it was a lot of pressure there, a lot of, as I said, back and forth," Azarenka said. "It was important to take the opportunities to kind of make a big statement.
"I think I did that and I turned things around into my own way," she said.
Azarenka has now qualified for her fourth semifinals appearance in the last five grand slams, but despite the absence of Williams, may still need to battle to keep her world No 1 ranking from Maria Sharapova at Melbourne Park.
Sharapova plays her semifinal against China's Li Na on Thursday.
"I think Sloane is a very, very talented girl," Azarenka told reporters before the all-American quarterfinal.
"I think over the last couple years you see her development, you know, as a tennis player. Her game has come together. She's all-around player, very competitive.
"I think she has a good potential. It's just a matter of her, you know, getting all those details in place and really wanting to achieve great things."