By Kevin Ware
(March 26, 2013) MIAMI – The score might indicate an otherwise straight sets 6-3, 7-6(5) quarterfinal victory for Serena Williams over Li Na. But this was no walk in the park for the world No. 1, who was coming off a tough three-set win over Dominika Cibulkova on Monday.
Williams looked a step slow, and struggled with her footwork in the windy conditions on the stadium court. When asked about playing back-to-back days, Williams discounted any issue with fatigue. “The only good thing about yesterday is I wasn’t tired at all, so it wasn’t hard to come back today and play at all,” Williams said in reference to her less than stellar performance.
Williams’ optimistic outlook, in the face of evidence to the contrary, is an admirable quality in a sport that hinges greatly on self-belief. If she believed she wasn’t fatigued from her match the day before, it could only help on this particular day as she battled the wind, a tweaked hip, and a dogged opponent intent on exploiting both.
Williams defers on most questions regarding injuries, but did say this about her hip issue: “I just had a little bit of a problem, a little with the hip, and it was just really weird.” It was a big enough problem for her to call the trainer after taking the first set, but not enough to receive a medical time out treatment. Even so, her movement was noticeably hampered in baseline rallies, especially when running to her backhand side.
One got the feeling that if Li Na could have made more of an impact in Serena’s service games, the outcome might have been different. Li Na tried her best to explain the daunting task of returning Serena’s serve, saying “I think today she has pretty good serve when like, I have set point, serve, and even in the tiebreak she have pretty good serve, so I was feeling returns a little bit tough.”
This on a day when Serena not at her serving best. She served 3 aces against 6 double faults against Li Na, compared to the 14 aces against 5 double faults against Cibulkova one day earlier. Serena was clearly not happy with her performance.
“I hit about 50 in one game, and it was just outrageous”. Though it wasn’t her best serving day, she was still helped by a respectable winning percentage on both first and second serve (74% and 54%, respectively), as well as her opponent’s inability to get serves back into play.
Williams took the first two games of the second set, but lost the next five with her diminished movement. A third set looked all but certain until Serena regained her focus and held for 3-5; forcing Li Na to serve for the set.
Unfortunately for her, this is when Williams is most dangerous, as Victoria Azarenka found out at 3-5 in the third set against Serena at the 2012 US Open Williams won the set 7-5). This is also when Li Na is most susceptible to nerves. She got down love-30, and then 15-40. An ace for 30-40 gave hope, but was quickly followed by a double fault to hand the break to Serena.
On serve at 4-5 and with a newfound spring in her step, it was only a matter of time before Serena regained her focus en route to the finish line.
With both players holding serve, the inevitable tiebreaker came down to “holding serve and holding nerve”. Both players did a good job of both until Williams ripped a crosscourt forehand pass by Li Na at 5-6; sending Serena leaping uncharacteristically into the air in spite of this match’s quarterfinal status.
“I was glad because she played such a good tiebreaker, and I think it was the only point I won on her serve. It was important for me to win that.”
Serena’s win over Li Na ties her with Steffi Graf for the most Miami match wins (59), but that’s not what matters most to her. “I hope to get more. If not this year, next year. That’s all.”