Melbourne, Australia (Sports Network) - China's sixth seed Li Na and world No. 1 and defending champion Victoria Azarenka will meet in the Australian Open final after both were straight-set winners on Thursday.
Li advanced with a dominant 6-2, 6-2 victory over second-seeded Russian Maria Sharapova, while Azarenka gutted out a 6-1, 6-4 decision over 29th-seeded American Sloane Stephens at Rod Laver Arena.
"I think (Li Na) is in incredible form right now. She's improved a lot," said Azarenka. "It will be a tough match."
Azarenka opened the match with a break of Stephens, but the 19-year-old held serve on her second try after a lengthy deuce to get back within 2-1.
Stephens would get no closer, though, as Azarenka earned her second break when Stephens failed to put away a couple of game points to fall behind 4-1.
Azarenka then quickly finished off the American on her serve, converting 9- of-10 first-serve points in the set, before closing out the first set with a looping backhand over the head of a drawn in Stephens that landed just inside the baseline.
After not facing a single break chance in the first set, Stephens converted on her first opportunity in the second to answer an early break by Azarenka and tie the score at 2-2.
The Belarusian then won the next two games to take a commanding lead before Stephens converted her second break to get back within 4-3.
Azarenka returned the favor to serve for the match and quickly went up 40-15, but Stephens fought off five match points before staying alive with a forehand down the right line to get back within 5-4.
Much like Stephens' match on Wednesday against Serena Williams, Azarenka was then forced to go into the locker room to get looked at by medical personnel.
But the result was different this time as Azarenka returned to the court 10 minutes later after getting her ribs and left knee examined, and used the break to dispatch Stephens when her backhand return just missed the left corner for her 42nd unforced error of the match.
Azarenka has now won 13 straight matches here in Melbourne.
"It was a tough situation. I did my best," Stephens said. "I obviously didn't get the win, but I just did everything I could and came up a little bit short."
China's Li opened the first match of the day with a break, and then held serve with an unforced error on Sharapova to jump ahead, 2-0.
The two held serve from there until they battled through several deuces during Sharapova's turn at the line, leading to Li earning her second break of the match with a hard forehand winner down the line for a 4-1 lead.
Sharapova answered with her lone break of the match, but was eventually done in by 17 unforced errors in the first set.
The first break of the second set saw Li take a 3-2 edge before she snapped a deuce with a pair of hard serves Sharapova could not handle on her ensuing try to gain a two-game advantage.
Li's second break of the set then gave her a chance to serve for the match, and she converted when Sharapova's return of a second serve ripped into the net to advance.
Sharapova entered the match having not dropped a single set and losing just nine games overall in her previous five matches at this event.
"I think she played a really great match. She was certainly much more aggressive than I was, dictating the play," Sharapova said. "I was always on the defense. When I had my opportunities and break points in games that went to deuce, I don't think any of them really went my way today."
Li hit 21 winners and took advantage of reigning French Open champion Sharapova's 32 unforced errors and six double faults to advance to her second Aussie Open final in three years.
Li lost the 2011 final to Kim Clijsters in three sets.
"My first time in a Grand Slam final, I was a little bit shocked because I didn't know what I should do," said Li. "Also no one told me what I should do on the court, but this time I have more experience, so I think should be better."
Azarenka owns a 5-4 edge against Li and won all three matchups last year. Li, though, did win their lone previous meeting in Melbourne, a 6-3, 6-3 triumph in the fourth round two years ago.