By Peter Rutherford
MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Grunt work saw Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova reach the Melbourne Park final on Thursday, as Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal prepare for a mouthwatering semi-final that could leave fans shouting from the rooftops on Australia Day.
So long positioned one and two in the world rankings, until Novak Djokovic broke their duopoly, meetings between Nadal and Federer have usually been reserved for finals, one of which came three years ago at the Australian Open when Nadal reduced the Swiss to tears.
Tears also stung the cheeks of Azarenka after an emotional 6-4 1-6 6-3 victory over defending champion Kim Clijsters earned the world number three her first grand slam final place.
The 22-year-old came out on top of a bruising baseline battle in the first set, dragging Clijsters from side to side before putting away forehand winners deep in the corners for dream start to just her second grand slam semi-final.
The second set was more akin to a nightmare for the pony-tailed righthander, who got just 35 percent of her first serves in and made 16 unforced errors.
Azarenka, who has been at the mercy of her emotions throughout her career, showed impressive composure to gather herself and put Clijsters on the back foot in the third set, wrapping up the semi-final in two hours, 12 minutes.
A Wimbledon semi-finalist last year, Azarenka told the crowd her temper tantrums were a thing of the past.
"I think before you all thought that I was a mental case," the 22-year-old said in a court-side interview. "I was just young and emotional."
Azarenka admitted she had struggled to keep it together in the final moments of the third set.
"I felt like my hand is about 200kg and my body is about 1,000 and everything is shaking," said the Belarusian, emotion etched over her face.
"But that feeling when you finally win is such a relief, it's like 'My God! I cannot believe it's finally over', I just want to cry."
Azarenka will be the first player from Belarus to contest a grand slam final since 1988 when Natasha Zvereva lost 6-0 6-0 to Steffi Graf at the French Open.
BUILT BELGIAN TOUGH
Clijsters is thought to be in her last season on Tour but the 28-year-old has shown the kind of physical and mental toughness that would stand her in good stead for years to come.
A back-from-the-brink victory over Li Na in the fourth round in which she suffered a nasty ankle injury served to bolster her aura of invincibility at Melbourne Park.
However, there would be no storybook finish for the player affectionately known as "Aussie Kim," though she certainly did not feel she had anything left to prove.
"I know I'm capable of beating all these girls, but it's whoever is better on the day wins and gets to go through," she added.
Fourth seed Sharapova overcame a second set rally by Petra Kvitova to advance to her third Australian Open final with a 6-2 3-6 6-4 victory, though she never quite reached top form.
The victory was sweet revenge for Sharapova, who had lost to the Czech in last year's Wimbledon final.
"I love this sport and sometimes even if you're not playing your best tennis, you can find a way to win," she said.
(Editing by Patrick Johnston)