By Nick Mulvenney
MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Novak Djokovic installed himself as red-hot favorite for a third straight Australian Open title with a semi-final demolition of David Ferrer on Thursday after Victoria Azarenka had controversially set up a final against Li Na.
Serbian world number one Djokovic was brutally dominant as he pulverized the Spanish fourth seed 6-2 6-2 6-1 in 89 minutes in Rod Laver Arena to race into Sunday's final against Roger Federer or Andy Murray.
"This was definitely one of the best matches of my career," he said. "Tonight I just played incredible."
China's Li could only be less convincing despite the impressive 6-2 6-2 win over Russia's 2008 champion Maria Sharapova but it was the second women's semi-final that provided the main talking point of the day.
There was no doubt that defending champion Azarenka was a worthy 6-1 6-4 winner over American teenager Sloane Stephens but the specter of gamesmanship was raised when the Belarusian took a lengthy medical timeout after failing to convert five match points.
"I almost did the choke of the year right now," the world number one said at courtside after she had wrapped up her place in Saturday's final.
"At 5-3, having so many chances, couldn't close it out but I'm glad I could close it out. Nerves got into me for sure."
Stephens, playing in her first grand slam semi-final after upsetting Serena Williams on Wednesday, was not about to make an issue of it and Azarenka clarified her comments in the face of a barrage of questions at her post-match news conference.
"I'm telling you what happened right now honestly, that my back was bothering me," Azarenka said, blaming a rib injury for the problem. "It took me too long of a time to call the trainer, which was my mistake.
"I took it to the point where I couldn't breathe, which was (caused by) my back problem, and I couldn't really figure out what was going on the court.
"I was really panicking, not because I couldn't convert my match point. That's not the case," she added.
Former men's number four Jonas Bjorkman was among many who took to social media to call for a change to the rules over medical timeouts.
"Azarenka took a medical timeout after all her missing matchpoints or because of an injury? Time to change that rule! No sportsmanship there!," he tweeted.
Djokovic looked like he barely wanted to take a break even at changeovers as he delivered a one-sided masterpiece of a performance against the fifth best player in men's tennis.
The 25-year-old Serbian won 91 percent of his first serve points, converted all seven of his break points and hit 30 winners as he thrashed Ferrer, who will rise to number four in the world on Monday in the absence of his injured compatriot Rafa Nadal.
"I have a great feeling about myself on the court at this moment," Djokovic said. "Now I have two days off before the finals which gives me enough time to get ready and recover for the finals."
Perhaps deciding that he had not spent enough time on the main showcourt, Djokovic later reappeared during a seniors doubles match dressed as a doctor to give Henri Leconte mock medical treatment.
While Djokovic's performance had the tennis purists purring, Li's victory would have had the tournament's marketing department grinning from ear to ear.
The self-titled "Grand Slam of the Asia-Pacific" has never had an Asian singles champion and Li, whose first trip to the Melbourne Park final ended in defeat to Kim Clijsters in 2011, has a second chance to put that right.
"At the beginning of the match I was nervous," said the 30-year-old Chinese. "I was happy to be back in the semis again.
"I'm really hungry for the title," the former French Open champion added. "I think this time should be maybe a different story."
Second seed Sharapova had carved her way ruthlessly through the draw at Melbourne Park, conceding only nine games on her way to the semi-finals.
Li, reinvigorated by Justine Henin's former coach Carlos Rodriguez, has also been in impressive form this year and will be quietly confident that she has the measure of Azarenka.
Certainly, on Thursday, the Chinese showed none of the mental frailties that have dogged her in the past as she broke the Russian in her first service game and never looked back.
"When your opponent is always up and ahead, it's always a little bit mentally easier for them to keep that going," said Sharapova.
"If I would have taken those chances and clawed my way back and made it a bit tougher for her, I'm sure she would have thought a little bit more. But I certainly didn't make her think about anything."
(Editing by Clare Fallon)