VICTORIA AZARENKA ended the giantkilling run of Sloane Stephens to keep the defence of her Australian Open title on track.
It was far from straightforward for the top seed, who wasted five match points and suffered a fitness scare before emerging a controversial 6-1 6-4 victor.
Stephens' victory over Serena Williams yesterday seemed to take its toll on the 19-year-old in the early stages but she grew into the contest and was starting to get on top before Azarenka limped over the line, aided by a medical time out at a vital juncture.
The Belarussian will meet Li Na in Saturday's final knowing she also needs to beat the Chinese to retain the number one ranking from Williams.
But she has plenty to think about beforehand.
Not only did Azarenka buckle when almost in the winner's circle she also cut a tetchy figure, frequently smashing balls all over the court in frustration at her inability to put the teenager away.
"I almost did the choke of the year," she admitted. "At 5-3 and having so many chances I couldn't close it out.
"I felt a little bit overwhelmed and realising I was one step away, nerves got into me."
Stephens, in her first grand slam semi-final, looked understandably nervous early on and Azarenka seized on her uncertainty by running through the opening two games.
The 29th seed finally got on the board but she remained edgy and Azarenka broke for a 4-1 lead.
Azarenka clinched the first set with a third break, drawing her opponent into the net before delivering a brilliant top-spin lob over her head for a winner.
And when she swiftly moved 2-0 up in the second it looked plain sailing.
But then came the injury scare as she pulled up after chasing a wide backhand and Stephens sensed the door may be opening once more.
She broke back and then held for 2-2.
Azarenka promptly embarked on a run of nine successive points which moved her to 4-2 only to toss away her advantage with two double faults and a mis-timed backhand.
Serving at 5-3, the 2012 champion wobbled horribly and saw five match points come and go as Stephens fought bravely as Stephens broke back.
But after Azarenka took a near 10-minute medical time-out for an unspecified injury she regained her composure and broke at the first opportunity to set up a clash with Li.
Li crushed Maria Sharapova with a magnificent display to power into her second Melbourne final.
Sharapova had broken a tournament record in conceding just nine games in reaching the last four but she was overwhelmed by the Chinese whose heavy-hitting, high-risk game reaped maximum reward.
In the face of blazing winners from all angles, Sharapova, the second seed, had no answer as Li romped to a 6-2 6-2 win.
"I always play well here," observed Li after a 93-minute masterclass.
Li, who reached the Melbourne final in 2011 and a few months later became the first Asian player to win a grand slam crown at Roland Garros, set the tone early on, two breaks of serve handing her a 4-1 lead.
After taking the first set 6-2, Li broke for 3-2 in the second set and then again for 5-2 thanks to a backhand winner before serving out the match.