Na vs. Azarenka for Australian Open title
Victoria Azarenka will have 48 hours to calm her nerves, rest her body and move past a center-court controversy before she returns to defend her Australian Open title.
Her opponent is an emotionally and physically fresher Li Na, the 2011 French Open champion. Both women used the word "hungry" to describe how much they want to win their second Grand Slam title. Li needed just 93 minutes on Thursday to power past No. 2 Maria Sharapova 6-2, 6-2. Azarenka also advanced in straight sets, beating American teenager Sloane Stephens 6-1, 6-4. But the victory was packed with drama and ended with the top-ranked player defending herself against accusations of gamesmanship by leaving the court for a medical timeout.
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Serving for the match at 5-3, the 23-year-old Azarenka wasted five match points, lost her serve — then called a timeout. But she raised suspicion during her interview on center court.
"I couldn't breathe. I had chest pains," she said, when asked why she left the court. "It was like I was getting a heart attack."
After surviving her semifinal, Azarenka had a post-match news conference where she said she was dealing with a rib injury that made it hard to breathe.
Another player with an easy run Thursday was defending champion Novak Djokovic, who looked like he was conducting a tennis clinic in overpowering No. 4 David Ferrer 6-2, 6-2, 6-1 in just 1 hour, 29 minutes. Djokovic will attempt to win his third consecutive Australian Open when he plays the winner of Friday's semifinal between Roger Federer and Andy Murray in Sunday's championship match.
HIGH SCHOOL BASKETBALL
Tickets on sale for Red State Blue State
Tickets went on sale Thursday for the March 3 matchup in Louisville between Montverde (Fla.) Academy and Huntington (W.Va.)Prep. The game, part of the new Red State Blue State Series, will be played at 4 p.m. in Freedom Hall and features UK commitment Dakari Johnson (Montverde) and top UK target Andrew Wiggins (Huntington Prep). Montverde also includes junior guard D'Angelo Russell, a Louisville native who is considering UK and U of L. Tickets can be purchased at Ticketmaster.com or at the Freedom Hall box office. The Red State Blue State Series begins with a Feb. 2 doubleheader at Broadbent Arena in Louisville featuring Ballard (Ky.) vs. St. Joseph's (N.J.) at 3 p.m., and Whitney Young (Ill.) vs. Evangelical Christian (Tenn.) at 4:30 p.m. Those games include UK commitment Karl Towns (St. Joseph), and UK targets Jahlil Okafor (Whitney Young) and Skal Labissiere (Evangelical Christian).
■ Wiggins and Huntington Prep will play Aiken (Ohio) at 9 p.m. Friday at Withrow High School in Cincinnati. The game is part of the Play By Play Classic, which also includes Dayton Dunbar (Ohio) vs. Summit Country Day (Ohio) at 6 p.m., and Withrow (Ohio) vs. Covington Catholic at 7:30 p.m.
■ Okafor will play against highly touted Duke commitment Jabari Parker at 9 p.m. Saturday on ESPNU. Okafor, the top post player in the class of 2014, already has a scholarship offer from Kentucky. His Whitney Young squad will face Parker and Simeon High in a matchup of Chicago's two best teams.
Base-stealer phenom catches Reds' eye
Billy Hamilton is ready to show the major leagues that he can steal a base anywhere. The Reds invited the 22-year-old outfielder to spring training, giving him a chance to see firsthand what it's like to take off running with a major league pitcher and catcher trying to keep him from taking the next base.
Hamilton set a professional record with 155 steals last season, which he split between Class A and Double-A. The Reds plan to start him at Triple-A Louisville this season, giving him time to develop his bunting and his new position of center field.
Snedeker, Choi lead at Torrey Pines
Brandt Snedeker ended another round at Torrey Pines atop the leader board. Only this time he had company, and still a long way to go. Snedeker had a flawless start to his title defense in the Farmers Insurance Open by playing bogey-free on the North Course for a 7-under 65 and a share of the lead with K.J. Choi on Thursday. Masters champion Bubba Watson withdrew because of an illness.
Ryder Cup stars Martin Kaymer and Sergio Garcia were among four players tied for the lead at the Qatar Masters after the second round on Thursday. The leader board was crowded, with 15 players within three shots of the leaders. Kaymer had a 5-under 67 and Garcia (66), overnight leader Ricardo Santos (70) of Portugal and Marcus Fraser (67) of Australia were at 9-under 135.
Two years before golf returns to the Olympics, the LPGA Tour is creating a tournament to determine the best in the world. The International Crown will start in 2014 and be played every other year. It will feature four days of team matches among eight countries that can field the strongest four-player teams based on the world rankings.
Florida St. loses yet another coordinator
Florida State offensive coordinator James Coley is leaving his alma mater for the same job at archrival Miami. The 39-year-old Coley is the sixth Seminole assistant leaving Jimbo Fisher's staff since the end of the season along with the school's football publicist.
No charges will be brought against two Texas football players investigated after a reported sexual assault at a San Antonio hotel. Bexar County First Assistant District Attorney Cliff Herberg said Wednesday charges will not be filed against quarterback Case McCoy and linebacker Jordan Hicks.
Coach Mack Brown suspended McCoy and Hicks the day before the Dec. 29 Alamo Bowl. Brown reinstated McCoy and Hicks on Jan. 13 after lawyers for the players said police told them the case would be dropped.
Kyle Busch extends JGR contract
Joe Gibbs Racing announced Thursday that Kyle Busch has signed a long-term extension to continue driving the No. 18 Toyota Camry. In addition, JGR will field the No. 54 Monster Energy Toyota in the Nationwide Series for at least 25 races with Busch as the primary driver. Terms of the deal were not disclosed. Busch, who has won 24 NASCAR Sprint Cup races and made the Chase for the Cup five times since 2005, said he chose to stay with JGR after weighing offers from two other ownership groups.
UK faces undefeated Alabama at home
Coming off back-to-back SEC dual meet wins for the first time ever, the Kentucky gymnastics team will take on Alabama inside Coleman Coliseum. Kentucky is off to the best start in school history as the Wildcats have never before topped 195 in all three meets to begin the season.
Alabama (2-0, 2-0 SEC) is the two-time defending national champion.
The last word
John Idzik, the New York Jets' new general manager, graduated magna cum laude from Dartmouth in 1982 and played wide receiver for the Big Green. His son Bradley is a wide receiver at Wake Forest. His father was the Jets' offensive coordinator from 1976-79. Said Idzik:
"Football is at the root of who I am."