(Writes through with quotes)
By Julien Pretot
PARIS, June 5 (Reuters) - Victoria Azarenka’s love affair with clay continued after she reached her maiden French Open semi-final with a 7-6(3) 6-2 defeat of former doubles partner Maria Kirilenko on Wednesday.
The former world number one from Belarus, seeded third at Roland Garros, put her friendship with Kirilenko aside to end the Russian 12th seed’s resilience after nearly two hours on a sun-soaked Court Suzanne Lenglen.
Quizzed on her feelings about playing on clay, Azarenka said: ”I still don’t have any ring on my finger.
“But I feel like we made a step forward. We are moving in together. Kind of that type of a relationship is moving forward and see what happens after.”
Azarenka, who has now reached the last four in all the grand-slam events, will meet defending champion Maria Sharapova, the second seed, against whom she enjoys a 7-5 record although she has lost their two matches on clay.
Azarenka took the opening set after 76 minutes, with Kirilenko, who was wearing a ‘Paris-Charles de Gaulle’ t-shirt after her match as if in a hurry to depart, taking a medical time out to have her hip treated.
The double Australian Open champion then broke early in the second set and held firm.
“In the beginning it was so close, I‘m happy that finally at the third attempt I passed that stage,” Azarenka told a courtside interviewer, referring to her 2009 and 2011 quarter-final eliminations against Li Na and Dinara Safina respectively.
Former doubles partners Azarenka and Kirilenko, who reached the 2011 Australian Open final and claimed three titles together, were on either side of the net for the first time since the Belarussian prevailed in the Olympic bronze medal match last year.
With Azarenka bidding for a first Roland Garros last-four place, and Kirilenko looking to reach her maiden major grand-slam semi-final, tension was high.
The first game alone lasted almost 10 minutes with the first four games going against serve as both players endured a shaky start.
After holding for 4-3, Kirilenko took a medical time out, first on then off court to treat a lower back problem.
In the meanwhile, Azarenka practiced serving and her forehand and backhand as ball boys threw balls at her.
Kirilenko threatened in the following game, but Azarenka levelled for 4-4 with a nice backhand winner and she then broke with a service return winner.
Kirilenko, however, broke straight back to force a tiebreak to decide a set that lasted 76 minutes.
The fourth point, which saw Azarenka open a 3-1 lead, encapsulated the match, as Kirilenko put up a brilliant defence, only for the former world number one to prevail with a forehand winner at the end of a leg-snapping rally.
“One or two points really decided the first set, especially the beginning of the tiebreak. The way I started was really dominant,” said Azarenka.
A break for 3-1 put her in command of the second set and she never looked back, dismissing her friend in ruthless fashion.
“We are pretty close friends. I‘m always happy to see her. We talk outside the court, as well,” said Azarenka.
“Of course on court it’s all about, you know, winning the match.”
Azarenka must continue to focus on her affair with clay.
“You have to keep loving each other. That’s the most important, love all around,” she said with a smile.
“Making it work every day. Really committing every time. But love is the first and most successful tool.” (Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Clare Fallon and Alison Wildey)