MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) - Victoria Azarenka reached her first Grand Slam final and staked a claim for the No. 1 ranking when she beat defending champion Kim Clijsters 6-4, 1-6, 6-3 in the Australian Open semifinals on Thursday.
The third-seeded Azarenka recovered her composure twice in periods when a resurgent Clijsters seemed to have the upper hand, breaking the veteran Belgian's serve three times in the third set to secure victory in only her second appearance in a major semifinal.
The 22-year-old Belarusian will play either Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova or 2008 Australian Open champion Maria Sharapova in the Saturday night final. Azarenka, Kvitova and Sharapova can all finish the tournament with the No. 1 ranking.
After a strong start, Azarenka's serve deserted her in the second set and Clijsters dictated play with her solid groundstrokes and some amazing defense.
But after getting the momentum back, it was Clijsters who blinked first in the third set, dropping serve in the second game and again in the fourth. She got two of those service games back, including one when she rallied from 40-0 down to win a game to get the score back to 4-3.
But Azarenka rallied immediately again, breaking serve. She got triple match point trying to serve out the match and, after a double-fault on her first, she clinched it on a Clijsters' error.
Azarenka threw her racket on the court and sank to her knees, bent over with her hands covering her face. Clijsters came around the net to congratulate her.
"I felt like my hand is about 200 kilograms and my body is about 1,000 and everything is shaking, but that feeling when you finally win is such a relief. My God I cannot believe it's over. I just want to cry," Azarenka said as she choked back tears, then buried her face in the towel.
"It was just trying to stay in the moment. Kim really took over the second set and I felt there was nothing I could do. I just tried to regroup."
Clijsters is a popular player in Australia, where she's widely known as "Aussie Kim." The four-time major winner had most of the backing from the crowd on the national holiday in what is likely to be her last Australian Open.
Azarenka held her nerve despite the crowd.
"I guess before you all thought I was a mental case. I was just young and emotional," she said in a courtside interview. "I'm really glad the way I fight, that's the most thing I'm really proud of. I fight for every ball."
The Sharapova-Kvitova semifinal was next match on Rod Laver Arena.
On Wednesday night, top-ranked Novak Djokovic held off No. 5 David Ferrer in a second-set tiebreaker and then raced through the third set for a 6-4, 7-6 (4), 6-1 win, setting up a rematch of last year's final against fourth-ranked Andy Murray and ensuring the 'Big 4' reached the semifinals for the third time in the last four majors.
With Nos. 2-4 already in the semis, Djokovic looked to be in trouble in the second set when he clutched at his left hamstring and had trouble breathing.
"No, I don't have any physical issues," Djokovic later said, playing down any health concerns. "I feel very fit and I feel mentally, as well, very fresh.
"It's just today I found it very difficult after a long time to breathe because I felt the whole day my nose was closed a little bit. I just wasn't able to get enough oxygen."
Murray beat Kei Nishikori 6-3, 6-3, 6-1 earlier Wednesday, while second-ranked Rafael Nadal and No. 3 Roger Federer were already preparing for their semifinal showdown on Thursday, their 10th clash at a major but their first meeting at that stage of a Grand Slam since 2005.
Doubts about Djokovic's temperament surfaced after he won his first major at the 2008 Australian Open and didn't reach another final for 11 Grand Slam tournaments. In his first title defense in 2009, he struggled with breathing problems and the heat and had to retire from his quarterfinal match against Andy Roddick.
Trying again to defend the Australian title, and again in the quarterfinals, Djokovic was leading by a set and a break when he dropped serve against Ferrer.
At break point, he scrambled to hit a lob on his backhand and didn't even wait for it to land out before turning to face the back of the court, grabbing at the back of his left leg. He leaned over and rested his head on the top of his racket. Ferrer was back in contention.
At times Djokovic looked exhausted and sore at times in the second set, but he pulled through.
"In these conditions, at this stage of the tournament, when you're playing somebody like David ... your physical strength and endurance comes into question," Djokovic calmly explained of his on-court demeanor. "Actually I'm not concerned about that at all."
That may not be how Murray's new coach, Ivan Lendl, sees it. Lendl has been working with Murray this month, trying to help him break his Grand Slam title drought - he has lost three major finals, including the last two in Australia.
He was doing some scouting Wednesday night at Rod Laver Arena, sitting about 15 rows behind the Djokovic group, surrounded by people waving Serbian flags. He couldn't have missed the sideways glances Djokovic sneaked at his support crew. Murray and Djokovic know each other well, but haven't been on the same side of a Grand Slam draw for a while.
Murray said he's growing in confidence because he's "just more used to being in this position."