By Rick Eymer
Palo Alto Online Sports
Victoria Azarenka knows her grunt can be a little distracting but she also knows a lot of things can be distracting to a focused competitor.
"Ever since I was a kid, I was pretty weak and needed that extra power," Azarenka said. "That's where it all started. It's the way I play and I cannot change it."
Azarenka needed everything she could muster to beat Marion Bartoli, 3-6, 6-3, 6-3, in the quarterfinals of the Bank of the West Classic on Friday.
Eighth-seeded Azarenka meets top-seeded Samantha Stosur in Saturday's semifinal. Stosur advanced with a 7-5, 3-6, 6-3 victory over Yanina Wickmayer.
The fourth-seeded Bartoli, the Bank of the West Classic's defending champion, started strong but could not maintain it. She was visibly distraught following the loss, admitting she was distracted by Azarenka's grunting, but was able to regain her composure and cracked a few jokes on her way out.
"If Azarenka and (Maria) Sharapova play in the finals, people are going to need ear plugs," she said, smiling.
That remains a possibility as Sharapova outlasted fellow Russian Elena Dementieva, 6-4, 2-6, 6-3, in a match that lasted nearly three hours.
Azarenka has managed to beat Bartoli in all four of their career meetings. This time it cost the 14th-ranked Frenchwoman her eight-match winning streak at the event. Bartoli has still won 10 of her past 14 matches this season.
"All the games were very close. She won them at the end of the second set but I could have won them too," Bartoli said. "I think I gave her the hardest match we have played so far. She was beating me easily the last three times, so there was some improvement. But I did have the match in my hands."
Azarenka pretty much agreed with that assessment.
"It was a tough match," she said. "She started the match well, hitting hard and making so many winners. She's improved her game, her movement and her serve was good. I was trying to stay out there until I could find my game. It finally went my way."
Azarenka, a native of Belarus who calls Scottsdale (Ariz.) home these days, won her first three WTA Tour singles titles last year and has been on the brink of several more this year. She's in her fourth semifinal of the season.
Azarenka, who turns 21 on Saturday, improved to 17-5 on hard courts this year. All three of her career titles have been on hard courts.
Stosur, who has two singles titles to go with her 22 doubles title, has won 25 of her past 30 matches and leads the Tour with 37 overall. She reached the finals of the French Open and has reached a career high with her No. 5 ranking.
Stosur and Azarenka have met three previous times, with Azarenka winning all of them, the most recent last year in Miami.
"We've had a couple of close matches and there were some where she absolutely killed me," said Stosur, who reached her sixth semifinal of the year. "The way she plays gives me problems but my game is different than the last time we played."
Azarenka was also cautious about Stosur.
"Sam has been in great form throughout this whole year," she said. "You have to stay focused because a match can turn on one shot."
Third-seeded Agnieszka Radwanska ended Maria Kirilenko's run in the tournament, beating the 27th-ranked Russian, 7-5, 6-0, and reaching her first semifinal of the year.
"I think the first set was the key in this match," Radwanska said. "It was very close, very long and I think she was upset losing that first set. I felt much more comfortable in the second set, knowing that I was one set ahead. When I was up 3-0 in the second set, I knew I was in a good spot."
Kirilenko's quarterfinal appearance was her best in three visits to Stanford.
Radwanska and Sharapova meet in the other semfinal.
The fifth-seeded Sharapova improved to 6-3 against Top 10 competition since returning from shoulder surgery last May. She advanced to her fourth semifinal of the year.
"I wasn't swinging through well," Sharapova said. "Sometimes my arm doesn't want to swing. I didn't want to let up on my serve though. I wanted to keep going for it. When things aren't going that well, you keep doing the right things and hope it turns around."
It was another classic battle between two of the top Russians in the women's game, and is the longest match of the tournament. The 15th-ranked Sharapova leads the series against the second-seeded and sixth-ranked Dementieva 9-3 after playing a third set for the first time since the 2004 meeting in Zurich, and third overall.
"I think it was a good match. I feel like I played much better than my first match," Dementieva said. "I think my serve wasn't good enough and she was serving very well. It was a pretty tough game."
Dementieva played in her first tournament since the French Open because of a right shoulder injury.
"This is what I was hoping for to play a few tough matches here," she said, "to feel the competition and feel the game, and hopefully the next time it's going to help me."
The full draw can be found at the Bank of the West Classic website.
Bank of the West Classic
Samantha Stosur vs. Victoria Azarenka, noon
Kirilenko-Azarenka vs. Chan-Zheng, follows
Maria Sharapova vs. Agnieszka Radwanska, 7:30 p.m.
Borwell/Kops-Jones vs. Davenport-Huber, follows
U.S. Open National Playoffs
Alina Jidkova vs. Brittany Augustine, noon
Jessica Pegula vs. Alexandra Mueller, to follow