(Reuters) - In-form Victoria Azarenka battled past an ailing but determined second seed Angelique Kerber to set up a Miami Open final showdown against Svetlana Kuznetsova with a 6-2 7-5 victory on Thursday.
With the victory, the 13th-seeded Belarusian gained revenge for a quarter-final loss to the second-seeded German at the Australian Open, her only defeat of the season, but had to fight tooth and nail to earn it in a 94-minute tussle.
Kerber, who had her upper left leg covered in heavy strapping, looked dead and buried on several occasions in the second set but was able to stay alive with a gutsy break when Azarenka served for the match at 5-4.
Parity was short-lived, however, as Kerber handed back the break in the next game and Azarenka did not waste another opportunity to seal the deal to move one win away from a third Miami title and second straight tournament triumph.
"I am very happy I stayed really strong in the end and actually started really well," Azarenka, who beat Serena Williams to claim the Indian Wells title on March 20, said in a courtside interview.
"I started to dictate (early) and I think the beginning was really important," she added of the victory over the Australian Open champion.
"She's such a fighter and an amazing player. I'm glad I kept pushing and kept trying to break her rhythm. Glad I stayed really strong.
"For me it was really painful to watch my match from the Australian Open and I'm really glad that I corrected my errors there and improved my serve. Although there were a lot of breaks, when I needed it, it came strong."
As well as avenging the Melbourne defeat, Azarenka improved to 7-1 in head-to-head meetings against the German and took her 2016 record to an impressive 21-1.
Next up for the 26-year-old is Kuznetsova in the final, after the Russian held off a strong challenge from Switzerland's Timea Bacsinszky 7-5 6-3 in searing afternoon heat. The 15th-seed relied on a never-say-die attitude and a powerful baseline game as she improved her career record to 3-0 against the Swiss, ending the match with a crunching backhand crosscourt winner after nearly two hours on court.
"I am happy that I could hang in there and never let my hands down," Kuznetsova, who won the Miami title in 2006, said courtside.
"I have not been feeling my best but I have been fighting every ball and just trying to run as much as I could. "I was praying to finish it in two sets so I can have a little bit of time to rest," smiled the Russian, referring to Saturday's final. Kuznetsova, who pulled off a stunning upset when she ousted world number one Williams in the fourth round, won a tight opening set after ending a brilliant baseline slugfest between the two with an overhead smash. Though she failed to hold serve in the first game of the second set, the Russian broke her 19th-seeded opponent in the second and fourth games to lead 3-1, then fought back from 15-40 down on serve in the ninth to seal victory.
(Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes and Benjamin Everill in Los Angeles; Editing by John O'Brien)