By Kevin Ware
(March 29, 2014) MIAMI – Serena Williams won her seventh Sony Open title over Li Na in straight sets, 7-5, 6-1.
With this win, Williams becomes the winningest player in the tournament’s history. Competing in her ninth final, Williams’ seven titles now eclipses the six won by Andre Agassi. She has the most main draw match wins in tournament history (67), and joins Chris Evert, Steffi Graf and Martina Navratilova as the fourth player in the Open Era to win the same tournament seven or more times.
None of this would have come to pass, however, if Williams hadn’t willed herself into yet another brilliant comeback after an error-filled start to the women’s final. In her semi against Maria Sharapova, Williams found herself in a deep hole, down 1-4. In her final against Li Na, the reigning Australian Open champion, she once again found herself behind the eight ball.
The statistics tell the story of Williams struggles, with a first-serve percentage at 42%, 3 double faults, and 21 unforced errors against only 15 winners. While it’s true that Li Na got off to a great start with her own game, Williams was her own worst enemy. And then, two breaks down and fighting to stay in the set at 2-5, Williams rediscovered her championship mettle.
Forehands that had previously found the bottom of the net were hitting their mark deep in the corners or on the back of the baseline, her “down the line” backhand became untouchable, and her serve became the weapon that we’ve all come to expect from World No. 1.
The rest is history. Williams went on to win 11 of the next 12 games, fighting off one set point at 4-5 before winning a closely-fought first set, and rolling through the second. It was a vintage performance from a player who seems to play her best when facing defeat.
When asked about this particular trend in her post-match news conference, Williams was quick to say, “I definitely don’t do it on purpose.”
“I think for the most part, I try to do the best I can, and sometimes, you know, things I’m doing don’t work out, but they are the right things and eventually they start to work.”
Li Na had her chances to close out the set, but was broken twice in the process. The second of those breaks, lasting 6 deuces, handed the first set to Williams. After relinquishing such a big lead, one might expect a certain amount of frustration or disappointment. But Li Na, who’s gained a newfound sense of calm since beginning her work with coach Carlos Rodriguez, was pragmatic about the lead that slipped away.
“I don’t have to see how was the score, because even the match didn’t finish yet. Still everyone has a chance.” She went on to add, “I think this is tennis, because if I was play more aggressive, for sure she will going back a little bit. If she play a little bit forward, I have to going back a little bit. So this is tennis.”
In spite of the loss, Li was happy with her game. “I mean, really nothing to say. I don’t think today I was doing like a wrong game plan or I was play totally wrong. I think it was pretty good match.”
The second set was a cleaner affair for Williams. Though her first serve percentage remained low at 43%, she managed to win 90% of first serve points and 61% of second serve points. More importantly, she didn’t allow her serving woes to bring down the rest of her game as it has in past matches.
“I think now if my serve isn’t great, it’s okay because I have a great forehand, I have a great backhand, I have great speed.”
“You know, I have so many things that I want to have a backup plan, because today I only served at 40%. I still have to figure out a way to win doing that.” Her backup plan was clearly more than enough to overcome on this day.
With 59 titles under her belt, and a slew WTA records, Williams could justifiably retire tomorrow as one of the all-time greats. I was curious to know just how this future Hall of Famer continues to challenge herself when there’s so little left to prove.
“I think I love the challenge, and I feel like if I feel like I can be the best right now, then why not continue to be the best and do the best that I can?”
Spoken like a true champion.