NEW YORK (AP) — Normally so good, so gritty, in the crucible of the third set, Maria Sharapova finally met her match against Victoria Azarenka.
Coming all the way back from a set and a break down, the top-seeded Azarenka prevailed in a stirring third, beating four-time Grand Slam champion Sharapova 3-6, 6-2, 6-4 on Friday to reach her first U.S. Open final.
"All heart," said Azarenka, a 23-year-old from Belarus.
Azarenka will face Serena Williams in Saturday's night match, after Williams dismantled French Open finalist Sara Errani of Italy, 6-1, 6-2.
Entering Friday, Sharapova was 12-0 in three-setters this year, and had won 78 consecutive matches in which she took the opening set, a streak dating to 2010. But Azarenka broke in the last game to push her own 2012 record to 12-0 in matches that went the distance.
"Actually, I didn't know that statistic," Azarenka said during an on-court interview. "It's pretty good."
On Saturday, in Australian Open champion Azarenka's second major final of the season — and career — she will face Williams in a night match.
Azarenka could hardly be blamed for hoping to avoid a particular opponent: She is 1-9 against Williams, whose 14 Grand Slam titles include three at Flushing Meadows.
Then again, the way Azarenka dealt with Sharapova, she's probably feeling pretty good about herself. She sure looked pleased while doing a little jig, then chucking some tennis balls into the stands, after Sharapova's forehand sailed long on the final point of their 2-hour, 42-minute quarterfinal.
"I was just not trying to focus on the score," Azarenka said. "Trying to give whatever it takes."
Given a chance to rest for a bit after the second set by a 10-minute break requested by Sharapova under the extreme heat rule, both women came out swinging away in the third. Azarenka emerged from the locker room before Sharapova and took the opportunity to practice groundstrokes and serves with ballkids.
The third set was filled with high-quality play, made all the more impressive considering the sun, the swirling wind and what was at stake. They hit the ball hard. They chased down shots with terrific defense. Sharapova even shifted her racket from her right to her left hand during a couple of lengthy exchanges.