By Megan Fernandez
MASON, Ohio – Li Na won her first title of the year at the Western & Southern Open Sunday, coming back from a one-set deficit to dominate the end of the match, winning 1-6, 6-3, 6-1 over Angelique Kerber. The 30-year-old champ ran away with 11 of the last 12 games after trailing a set and a break for her ninth career title.
Asked how she felt after the match, she said, â€œMuch better than last week,â€ and laughed. Six days ago, Li lost her third final of the year to Petra Kvitova at the Rogers Cup in Montreal.
Li said her failure to win a title in three trips to finals this year gave her extra motivation to winâ€”as did seeing this yearâ€™s menâ€™s Western & Southern Open champ, Roger Federer, walk by with his trophy before the womenâ€™s final began. The turning point in the womenâ€™s final came after Li got the second set back on serve and then held for 4-3. Kerberâ€™s next service game produced a deuce-ad battle that, at times, left both players winded. After nine deuces. Li converted her fifth break point of the game, and never looked back. In the third set, she didnâ€™t miss a first serve.
Kerberâ€™s first appearance in a WTA Premier 5 final bookends an impressive year that started at the 2011 US Open, where she made her first Grand Slam semi-final despite a world ranking of No. 92, a ranking that had required her to enter qualifying the week before in Dallas. Monday, she will rise to a career-high No. 6 in the world on the strength of wins over Serena Williams and Kvitova this week in Cincinnati.
Kerberâ€™s friend and countrywoman Andrea Petkovic saw this coming. Last year, Petkovic was in Kerberâ€™s shoes, making the semifinals at Cincinnati. Asked about her German contemporaries, Petkovic pointedly said to keep an eye on Kerber. â€œShe’s going to come back,â€ Petkovic said. â€œI called her and asked her to come to my academy where I train, and she came there for four weeks and practiced really, really hard.
I promise you she’s going to be at least top 30, like, in six months.â€
Petkovic was closeâ€”Kerber ended the year ranked No. 32. And she continued to improve, winning her first two career titles this year, the indoor events in Paris and Copenhagen. Petkovicâ€™s intense focus on fitness inspired her 24-year-old compatriot. â€œShe was telling me, like, come on, you can do it,â€ Kerber said.
â€œI knew that we are on the same level on the tennis, but in the fitness I had no chance against her. We had a great time, and we are still in contact every week.â€ Incidentally, Petkovic has spent much of 2012 sidelined with an injury, returning this week in New Haven. Her ranking has slipped from No. 10 at the end of 2011 to No. 27 now.
Liâ€™s new coach (and Justine Heninâ€™s former one), Carlos Rodriguez, joined her in Cincinnati to begin their partnership. The two hadnâ€™t even met before this week; Li hired him after corresponding with him only on the phone and by text message. He provided on-court counsel in Liâ€™s quarterfinal, semi, and final, after sets won or lost. â€œYou can see even I lose the first set, Carlos was coming, still laughing a lot,â€ Li said. Turning to a WTA Tour representative, she asked for help in describing her new coach. â€œTell me what the words. â€¦ Yeah. Secret weapon.â€